If you were too preoccupied with a bounty of turkey and pumpkin pie to pay attention to the races this past weekend, you missed out on some nice performances. And unlike the recent string of bad news plaguing the racing world, the outcomes of these stakes can be seen as signs of good things to come for the new year.


Wise DanThe Grade I Clark Handicap did not turn out to be the last-ditch score for Horse of the Year candidates, but it did give us a glimpse of what we may have to look forward to in 2012. Flat Out flattened out, as he tends to do come race time at Churchill, and Mission Impazible enjoyed his second second-place finish beneath the twin spires in grade I competition. Wise Dan turned out to be the show-stopper, as he capped a season with wins in the Grade II Firecracker and Fayette Stakes with a decisive Clark victory. Now a graded stakes winner on dirt, turf, and synthetic, Wise Dan will rest up for the year and is being pointed toward a 2012 campaign. This versatile 4-year-old gelding has virtually every door open to him, and seems to only be getting better with maturity. He’s just one of the solid horses who turned in a big performance last weekend that we can look forward to next year.

To Honor and Serve always had the makings of a colt with a bright future. The son of Bernardini won the Grade II Nashua and Remsen Stakes as a 2-year-old, and came back at 3 to win the Pennsylvania Derby, but that grade I victory remained ever elusive with losses in the Florida Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic. But this past Saturday, against older horses, To Honor and Serve finally put it all together and won the Grade I Cigar Mile at Aqueduct. Facing a small, but tested field of older horses, including grade I winner Haynesfield and multiple stakes-winner Calibrachoa, To Honor and Serve stamped himself as a horse worth following into 2012. In a year where so many 3-year-olds went positively AWOL, it’s nice to have one grade I winner survive the sidelines and go on to do greater things.

Speaking of horses that came flying from the sidelines, the win-streak continued on Saturday for the undefeated champion Awesome Feather. Injured after her romp in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, we didn’t see her again for eleven months; this October, Awesome Feather returned to the track to win the $60,000 Le Slew Stakes at Belmont Park. The race proved the filly had overcome the long time off and was still a race horse, but it was an easy spot in preparation for the real acid test, the Grade I Gazelle. The race marked the first time Awesome Feather would run 1 1/8th-miles, and it would be only her second grade I start since the Juvenile Fillies. What she showed us is how special she really is. Awesome Feather handled the race like a pro, drawing away to win the Gazelle by 5 1/4th-lengths. Now 8-for-8, Awesome Feather will target the Sunshine Millions at Gulfstream in January. If she continues to stay fit and healthy, we could be in for a spectacular campaign next year.

On Fire Baby wins the Golden RodI’m also thrilled to report the future continues to look bright for next year’s 3-year-old crop. Churchill Downs’ Stars of Tomorrow Day featured the Grade II Golden Rod and Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes for 2-year-olds, and both races were won by juveniles with star power to spare. Turning in a positively Rachel-esque performance, 5/2 favorite On Fire Baby blew the doors off her competition to pull away by 6 1/4th-lengths in the Golden Rod. The gray filly by Smoke Glacken now has 3 wins in 4 starts, with another stakes victory in the Grade II Pocahontas. Her only loss came with a 5th-place finish in the Grade I Aclibiades, over Keeneland’s wonky Polytrack; needless to say, she won’t be going back to Lexington anytime soon, because this little beauty has proven her class on the same dirt the Oaks will be run over in May. Consider me firmly planted on the On Fire Baby bandwagon. The winner of the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes has deserved his fans, as well; Gemologist remained perfect in three starts when he stepped up at Churchill to take his first stakes race. The son of Tiznow broke his maiden at Turfway Park by 5 lengths before going on to win an allowance at Churchill Downs by 2. His 1 3/4th-length score over a good-looking field of juveniles in the KY Jockey Club is a sign this guy might be the real deal, and has options for where he may go as a 3-year-old, as well.

While it’s too soon to see if 2012 will be the cure for the constant disappointment that was 2011, these highlights from last weekend give the sport some hope for the future. With no real excitement surrounding this year’s Horse of the Year Award, it’s time to start looking ahead. Clear your virtual stables and start adding fresh faces. These are the times to start paying attention to those little races so you can claim, “I knew them when.”