ON HORSE OF THE YEAR
Most years, absent a Triple Crown winner or, perhaps, a stunning campaign by a three-year-old filly, the Classic winner has a huge leg up at end-of-season Horse of the Year balloting.
Even then, a Classic victory is by no means a Horse of the Year gim’me. On 15 occasions in 26 years, the Classic winner and Horse of the Year were mutually exclusive.
So it follows that, more often than not, the Classic winner will not dislodge a horse of the year, as opposed to being king or queen for a day. This is as it should be.
Last year was one of those occasions where not only was the Classic winner and Horse of the Year mutually exclusive, the rift was responsible for a divide among racing fans as wide as the distance between New York and LA.
Readers may choose not to believe this but when my head hit the pillow on Saturday, November 7, my Horse of the Year vote was going to the dazzling winner of the Classic, Zenyatta, the first female to win America‘s richest race.
But by noon the following day, after a lengthy and sometimes heated discussion with two eminently qualified colleagues, I was convinced that a season should trump a spectacular Classic victory. My vote went to Rachel Alexandra.
This year, however, I will enter and exit the Classic with a closed mind. No matter how the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic turns out, my Horse of the Year ballot will be inscribed with one name: Zenyatta.
And so it doesn’t matter whether Goldikova becomes the first equine to win three consecutive Breeders’ Cup Miles, Zenyatta is the Horse of 2010.
Neither will it matter if Uncle Mo or Boys At Tosconova wins the Juvenile by 20 in a manner that makes everyone who witnesses it jump up and shout “Arazi Who?”
It won’t matter whether Quality Road proves his doubters wrong and wins the mile and a quarter Classic by five, or whether Blame rebounds from his Jockey Club Gold Cup defeat.
Or even if Lookin At Lucky, a dominant player since he was a baby, jumps up and beats his elders--although that might give me pause for single-handedly upholding the honor of the 2010 3-year-old class, the most maligned in recent history.
On the merits, all would be worthy of serious consideration. But that’s as far as it goes; worthy of a second thought.
I’ve written before about a similar quandary, in 1987, when I couldn’t decide between Ferdinand and Theatrical for Horse of the Year honors.
In my mind, Ferdinand clearly should be that year’s older handicap champion. A portfolio consisting of the Hollywood Gold Cup, Goodwood and Classic saw to that.
But I thought Theatrical, the winner of the Hialeah Turf Cup, Man o’ War, Turf Classic and Breeders’ Cup Turf was a more dominant performer throughout the year.
And so I sought out the advise of the legendary turf writer, Joe Hirsch. “The Horse of the Year,” Hirsch said, “can be anything.”
Without specific guidelines, subjective judgment dictates voters chose the “best,” or “most dominant,” or the horse that shines a klieg light on the sport, an equine ambassador for Thoroughbred racing.
Last week, trainer John Shirreffs was asked how he would react if his mare were denied the 2010 Horse of the Year title should she lose in her quest for a perfect 20.
Shirreffs responded that not only would it be an insulting in light of what the filly accomplished this year but that the sport might never recover from the ill will such as result would yield.
He later went on to say, arguably, that Zenyatta should have been 2008 Horse of the Year after Curlin’s second loss of the year in the Classic but that, as he suggested fairly, both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta deserved to share the honor in 2009.
That was the scenario favored here. Not only were both fillies outrageously qualified and deserving, but the fact they were both female made the decision to share the honor a slam dunk.
Politics prevailed, however, and voters were not permitted to split their votes, the argument against it being that co-Horses of the Year ultimately cheapens the award:
In his blog post on NTRA.com, turf writer Bob Ehalt came up with a great analogy when comparing athletes, whether they be equine or otherwise.
We agree with Ehalt’s assessment that while Sandy Koufax was the best pitcher he has ever seen, Nolan Ryan was the most amazing because he was an effective power pitcher late into his 40s.
On the racetrack, a similar comparison might have been Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes, widely acknowledged as the best equine performance ever, as opposed to Seattle Slew’s amazing speed and courage in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
For the moment, Ehalt has Zenyatta in the amazing category, citing her running down St. Trinians in the Vanity and Switch in the Lady’s Secret, each time snatching victory from the jaws of what appeared certain defeat.
There will be plenty of time for placing Zenyatta in historical context following the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Presently, however, no horse seen this year, has been the equal of the big mare, literally and figuratively.
At the end of two days of championship racing, the first name on everyone’s lips will be Zenyatta’s, win or lose. At a time when horse racing is fast disappearing from the sports mainstream, that’s an honor all by itself.
by John Pricci
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