Submitted by John Conte on Thursday, December 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM
The search for Horse of the Year
In your top 10, surely there would be the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Distaff. After that, you’d probably include the Triple Crown races, the Travers, the Kentucky Oaks, the Clark Handicap, and maybe, for its jaw-dropping thrill value, the Met Mile, where Sahara Sky rallied from far back to beat Cross Traffic, who nevertheless gave one the best performances of the season, albeit in a losing effort. And after that, well, the possibilities ramify: maybe the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, where Point of Entry defeated Animal Kingdom; or the Santa Anita Handicap, where Game On Dude romped, winning by nearly eight lengths in another of the year’s best performances; or maybe, for its augural implications, the Remsen, where Honor Code fought back after losing the lead to win by a nose.
Anyway, if you put together a list of the top 10 races of 2013 and you’re honest with yourself, you might be surprised to find that they have this in common: Wise Dan didn’t run in any of them. No, the Breeders’ Cup Mile wasn’t among the best races of 2013. Not that this is a definitive metric, and I hesitate to attach much importance to Roman numerals because they’re generally more deceptive than helpful, but they’ll suffice here for a quick comparison: Four Grade 1 winners were in the field for the Mile, as opposed to nine in the Classic.
Past editions of the Mile might have been counted among the best races of the season, but this year’s didn’t attract the usual European firepower and the American milers were modest.
Churchill’s Turf Classic? Wise Dan won by nearly five lengths over the yielding turf, and the field was solid, but the race was hardly among the year’s best, despite its Grade 1 status. Jeranimo was the only other Grade 1 winner in the field, and he was making his first start in four months. The Woodbine Mile? In a superlative performance, Wise Dan dominated, but wasn’t he like the tallest building in Waco? There wasn’t a single Grade 1 winner among the other five horses in the field.
The list of the year’s most significant races made me realize that Wise Dan, admirable and exciting though he may be, isn’t the Horse of the Year. Immediately after the Breeders’ Cup, and without any analysis, I had anticipated, frankly, voting for him, and Wise Dan, I concede, will probably get the golden Eclipse Award, but now, quite unexpectedly and without looking to arrive at this position, I realize he shouldn’t. If voters closely examine his races and his competition, they’ll see that he clearly didn’t accomplish as much or impact the sport as much as Will Take Charge. He’s the rightful Horse of the Year, and he’ll be the Horse of the Year on my ballot.
History, of course, is the ultimate guide in that it provides the criteria for awards and honors. And history insists there is no precedent -- that is, no justification or reasonable argument -- for a turf miler being Horse of the Year, not here, where the most significant races, with only a few exceptions, are run on dirt and at distances beyond a mile. On the other hand, history points out that a late-developing 3-year-old who concludes his campaign by beating older horses can indeed deserve the honor, as Tiznow did in 2000.
American racing didn’t even acknowledge a turf champion until 1953. Until 30 years ago, turf racing was something of a novelty in many regions of the country; most racetracks didn’t even have a turf course. And some of today’s major turf stakes, such as the Manhattan and San Juan Capistrano Handicaps, began as dirt races, while many, such as the Turf Classic Invitational and the Arlington Million, weren’t run at all until the 1970s or ’80s.
Still, nine turf champions also have been named Horse of the Year. Round Table was the first, in 1958, but he wasn’t a turf specialist. In his Horse of the Year campaign, he made 14 of his 20 starts on dirt, winning such stakes as the Santa Anita Handicap and the Hawthorne Gold Cup. The great Dr. Fager raced only once on turf during that greatest of campaigns, in 1968, when he was the champion older horse, sprinter, turf horse and, of course, Horse of the Year. And although Secretariat completed his storied career with two victories on grass, he, of course, became the legend and the icon with his performances on dirt, where he made 10 of his 12 starts in 1973. John Henry, although usually remembered as a turf horse, also raced on dirt during both of his Horse of the Year campaigns. Even Wise Dan raced on dirt, finishing second despite a troubled trip in the Stephen Foster, when he was last season’s Horse of the Year.
Only two turf champions, All Along in 1983 and Kotashaan in 1993, were named Horse of the Year after racing exclusively on grass. All Along was honored for a streak of superlative achievement that may never be duplicated. In the context of the cautious selectivity that accompanies many of the top horses through a season, this is difficult even to imagine: Two weeks after winning the Arc de Triomphe, All Along won the Rothman’s International at Woodbine, 13 days later she won the Turf Classic at Aqueduct, and two weeks after that she won the Washington D. C. International at Laurel, completing a dazzling, nacreous string of four major stakes victories in 41 days.
Ten years later, Kotashaan became the default choice when he defeated a Breeders’ Cup Turf field that included Bien Bien and Opera House, the European champion who had finished third in the Arc. And after Arcangues won the Classic, well, Kotashaan seemed the only choice, unless, of course, you preferred the Mile winner, Lure.
In this country, the best horses traditionally race on dirt and the most significant races are run on dirt, but what were the options in 1993? Bertrando, the champion older male, had won only three races, and two of those were romps in the slop. Prairie Bayou, the best of a mediocre group of 3-year-olds, had broken down in the Belmont. Hollywood Wildcat and Paseana hadn’t tested their talents against males. And so with six wins during an outstanding season, Kotashaan became Horse of the Year.
But with much better options this year, a default choice isn’t necessary. In a captious society that’s often more focused on assigning blame and finding fault than on acknowledging accomplishment, many will probably focus on Will Take Charge’s poor showing in the Triple Crown races. He finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby after he was stopped near the top of the stretch -- he almost certainly would have hit the board if not for the trouble -- and his Preakness and Belmont efforts were somnambulistic. But disappointment will always be a byproduct of boldness. And shouldn’t horse racing reward boldness? Look at Will Take Charge’s accomplishments.
And look at your list of the year’s most significant races. Will Take Charge probably raced in half, or maybe even six, of them, winning two, the Clark Handicap and the Travers, and nearly another, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, where he finished a nose behind Mucho Macho Man, whose tactical speed enabled him to take advantage of a better trip. Like Tiznow in 2000, Will Take Charge won four major, or graded, stakes, and for lagniappe, he also won the Smarty Jones Stakes back in January. Yes, he began his long trek to a championship in January -- or actually earlier; exactly a year ago he was preparing to run in the Springboard Mile at Remington Park.
And that suggests another reason, and certainly one of the best reasons, to vote for Will Take Charge. He represents what horse racing needs. A vote for him encourages the boldly adventurous and extensive campaigns that are healthy for the sport and exciting for its fans. Wise Dan never ventured outside his comfort zone, never accepted a challenge to extend or test his talents, but rather exactly followed, from August to November, the same path he took in 2012. Nothing’s wrong with that, of course, but a horse shouldn’t be able cherry-pick his way to Horse of the Year honors, especially if there’s another option. And there is.
Will Take Charge met every challenge, traveled from one region to another, and raced at six different distances, from a mile to a mile-and-a-half, and at seven different racetracks, while taking on the best of his generation and the most accomplished older horses in the game. When the season seemed done, the title as champion 3-year-old won, rather than retreat into complacency, he and his connections accepted yet another challenge. And just as he had won the Rebel Stakes and the Travers, which is to say, with grinding determination, Will Take Charge got up in the final stride to win the Clark by a head over Game On Dude.
He also got up just in time to be Horse of the Year.