October 16, 2021

Commentary

Last updated: 11/28/10 2:57 PM


COMMENTARY

NOVEMBER 29, 2010

Decision ’10

by Vance Hanson

With virtually every race with any sort of Eclipse Award implications now in
the books, the time seems right for this observer to reveal the names that will
be affixed to his ballot upon its receipt later this month. Once again, a
contentious and passionate debate on who should be Horse of the Year has
dominated the post-Breeders’ Cup discussion of racing matters. There is
little doubt that whoever wins, the result will be hotly debated for many years
to come. I, for one, eagerly hope the next season or two will yield Horse of the
Year battles resembling the quaint ones of yore when the choice was rather
obvious and the vitriol virtually non-existent.

Following the custom adopted last year, we’ll begin with divisional choices
where there should be little need for explanation, then work our way through
those where more than a stray comment or two are necessary.

Two-year-old male:

UNCLE MO (Indian Charlie).

Two-year-old filly:

AWESOME FEATHER (Awesome of Course). I
wasn’t overly impressed with the quality of this division as a whole, but this
Florida-based filly clearly came out on top in the race every serious contender
for the title chose to show up for.

Three-year-old male:

LOOKIN AT LUCKY. After moving to the head of the class following the
Preakness S. (G1), he sewed up
honors with back-to-back triumphs in the Haskell Invitational (G1) and Indiana
Derby (G2).

Three-year-old filly:

BLIND LUCK (Pollard’s Vision). I was open
to entertaining a late-season candidacy by Havre de Grace (Saint Liam) if she
had come out on top in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (G1), but Blind Luck
finished ahead of that rival for the third time in four meetings this season in
that fixture.

Older male:

BLAME.

Older female:

ZENYATTA.

Turf female:

The Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) presented a Catch-22 for the
American-based Proviso (GB), who enjoyed an outstanding season of four major
victories including one against males in the Frank E. Kilroe Mile H. (G1). It
was either face European standout GOLDIKOVA (Ire) (Anabaa) in the Mile
and potentially lose both the race and the championship, or sit it out and have
Goldikova potentially win the race and championship in her absence.

The first was chosen, and Goldikova strolled to arguably the most impressive
of her three consecutive Mile victories while Proviso languished over a course she
reportedly did not take hold of. While it’s disappointing Proviso’s fine season
will not be rewarded, there’s no doubting a second consecutive championship for Goldikova is
richly deserved.

Turf male:

European imports, many of questionable stature in their
homelands, virtually dominated America’s biggest grass tests for males this
season. Luckily for GIO PONTI (Tale of the Cat), none stood out as being
worthy of an Eclipse Award. Though only a two-time winner this season, in the
Man o’ War S. (G1) and Shadwell Turf Mile (G1), Gio Ponti ran consistently
enough to give him the nod for a second straight year. A length and a nose
separated him from additional triumphs in the Arlington Million (G1), Manhattan
H. (G1) and Tampa Bay S., and his second-place finish to Goldikova in the Mile
was top-notch in light of who he was running against.

Female sprinter:

Perhaps it’s fitting that in a division I’m still
reluctant to embrace as being worthy of having its own Eclipse Award that I
make a selection I’m rather ambivalent about. DUBAI MAJESTY is surely the heavy favorite to win on the basis of her victory in the
Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1), and she proved to be a most durable sort
and a winner on a variety of surfaces throughout the year.

About the only other logical alternative would be Rightly So (Read the
Footnotes), who enjoyed a fine, if brief, season in open company but on
Breeders’ Cup morning had to forfeit an opportunity at winning the championship
outright.

Let’s just say the name Dubai Majesty doesn’t sound jarring in a roll of
honor that includes Informed Decision (Monarchos), Indian Blessing and Maryfield.

Steeplechaser:

The most puzzling division this year as well as the one
most likely to receive the most abstentions (doesn’t it always?), the task is
made more difficult by the fact that every top-level race was won by a different
horse. Still, I’m very comfortable in choosing ARCADIUS (Giant’s
Causeway) off his four stakes-start campaign.

Though reportedly injured and unable to compete in either the Grand National
(NSA-G1) or Colonial Cup (NSA-G1) at the end of the year, the Jonathan Sheppard
trainee was a solid one-length winner of the Helen Haskell Sampson (NSA-G1) in
his final start of the season. He was the most consistent of the sport’s
performers over the summer, finishing second in the New York Turf Writers Cup
(NSA-G1) and A.P. Smithwick Memorial (NSA-G1) and third in the Iroquois
(NSA-G1). He avenged all of his losses at one point or another during the year,
and what more can you ask in a division where the championship is dependent
on the results of roughly a handful of races every year?

Here’s to a healthier 2011 for Arcadius.

Male sprinter:

I suffer no delusions that Big Drama (Montbrook) is the
most likely winner of this contest after a convincing victory in the Breeders’
Cup Sprint (G1). But if you asked me who the best male sprinter I saw all year
was, my unquestionable reply would be MAJESTICPERFECTION, who handed the
Breeders’ Cup hero a decisive loss in the Alfred G. Vanderbilt H. (G1) in their
only meeting. Indeed, one might ponder by how much a healthy Majesticperfection
would have won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

Congratulations in advance to the connections of Big Drama for their
championship, but in the spirit of being true to myself it must be recorded that
my one and likely insubstantial vote was cast for Majesticperfection.

Horse of the Year:

To those who scrolled down right away, welcome.

A year ago in this space we offered this observation:

“Many racing writers like to point out there is no established criteria
for Horse of the Year. While technically true, that statement overlooks the
established voting patterns of the past seven decades. The champion
three-year-old male or the champion older male, whichever is better, has been
the default choice of voters more than 60 times since formal polling began in
1936. That makes perfect sense as they are often the biggest stars of the sport
and, physiologically, the fastest and strongest of the season’s champions.”


I don’t think I’m alone in accepting this premise, but seemingly one of the
few who will publicly say so.

After much wrangling I’ve decided the best way to present my argument is to
tell you, the reader, how I generally form my opinion on who should be Horse of
the Year on an annual basis. It’s not very complicated, really.

On January 1, the slate is wiped clean. What horses accomplished in past
seasons I do not regard. Popularity with the general public is also of little
concern to me. Worthiness for the gold Eclipse is based solely on the
performances of the current year. There is no specific favorite for Horse of
Year on January 1.

While I never know, specifically, who the favorite is for racing’s top honor
when the year begins, I subscribe to the premise mentioned above. I truly expect
that the better horse between the season’s champion three-year-old male and
champion older male will be the most deserving of Horse of the Year honors for
the reasons stated. If you want to put a number on it, history says it’s roughly
an 80-20 proposition. That’s significant.

As the season progresses, I let the three-year-old male and older male
divisions sort themselves out. In an era when many high-profile horsemen choose
to avoid running their best horses against each other most of the year, this can
sometimes be problematic. But as we get later into autumn most observers have a
pretty good idea who the legitimate candidates for divisional honors are. You
typically don’t need all the fingers on one hand to count them.

What do horses in other divisions have to do to get noticed for Horse of the
Year? For me, it’s a two-part process. First, there has to be a total collapse
into relative mediocrity in the two major divisions. That often happens to one
or the other, but it’s a rare year when it happens in both. Second, provisional
champions in other divisions need to follow the precedents set by their
predecessors that previously won Horse of the Year.

It’s widely accepted that the two major Horse of the Year candidates are
Blame and Zenyatta. Goldikova has some support out there, but like John B.
Anderson in 1980, she’s the choice of some who can’t stomach seeing one or both
of the two main contenders win. The fact she raced only once in the United
States, while not a detriment for divisional honors as precedent allows, pretty
much disqualifies her for an award that is meant to honor excellence on the
racetracks of this country.

Let’s look at Blame. He captured the William Donald Schafer S. (G3), Stephen
Foster H. (G1), Whitney H. (G1) and Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). He was second,
beaten four lengths, by Haynesfield (Speightstown) in the Jockey Club Gold Cup
(G1), a fact his most rabid detractors argue is proof positive that he is a
mediocre champion. Overlooked, however, is the fact Blame had previously
defeated Haynesfield by 11 1/4 lengths in the Whitney and then beat him again by
22 3/4 lengths in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. That’s what I would call getting
the upper hand with retroactive interest.

Now let’s look at Zenyatta. She won the Santa Margarita H. (G1), Apple
Blossom S. (G1), Vanity H. (G1), Clement L. Hirsch S. (G1) and Lady’s Secret S.
(G1) before bowing by a head to Blame in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. All five of
those victories came at the expense of fillies and mares. That’s great for
becoming the champion of your division, not so much becoming Horse of the Year.
Parenthetically, how good would Blame’s record have been if he’d been allowed to
face fillies and mares on a routine basis?

For a female to be named Horse of the Year, it’s not what they do in their
own division but what they do outside of it that typically determines whether
they should be acclaimed the national champion. Twilight Tear, Busher, All
Along, Lady’s Secret and Rachel Alexandra all defeated older males in stakes
company over a route of ground at least once. This precedent has been violated
twice.

In 1965, Moccasin was a non-consensus Horse of the Year after polling the
most votes from the Thoroughbred Racing Association (TRA). In hindsight, it
seems rather fatuous that a horse who raced exclusively against two-year-old
fillies could be named Horse of the Year, or that Moccasin was even considered
the best two-year-old of either sex considering that year’s colt champion was
Hall of Famer Buckpasser.

In 2002, Azeri was named Horse of the Year off a brilliant campaign
consisting exclusively of races restricted to fillies and mares. In the opinion
of the majority of voters, both of the two major divisions collapsed into
mediocrity. War Emblem, the three-year-old colt champion, failed to win outside
his own division, while older male champion Left Bank tragically died of
complications from colic after a campaign of only four starts.

For the sake of proving my intellectual honesty, I must confess to having
voted for Left Bank as 2002 Horse of the Year. His Whitney H. score, achieved
over the dominating Dubai World Cup (UAE-G1) and Stephen Foster winner Street
Cry (Ire) (ironically, the sire of Zenyatta), suggested to me that he was the best
horse in America that year. As fine a campaign as Azeri enjoyed, in my opinion
it did not fit the historical parameters set by past female Horses of the Year.

The connections of Zenyatta decided very early this year that their mare’s
pre-Breeders’ Cup Classic campaign would consist solely of races against fillies
and mares. Any suggestion that they shake up their pre-Classic schedule with a
race or two against males either in California or elsewhere was dismissed out of
hand, a parochial and odd view to take if the sole purpose of keeping her
training this year was to garner a Horse of the Year title they felt was wrongly
denied them in 2009. From their point of view, it was the results of the
Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs that would solely determine Horse of
the Year. When this unspoken pronouncement was understood, the only respectful
thing to say was, “Have it your way.”

That is until some in the Zenyatta camp suggested in the weeks leading up to
the Breeders’ Cup that it would be a “slap in the face” if she were denied the
title regardless of the result of the Classic. Only then did it seem to have
sunk in with these risk-averse connections how risky their all-in strategy
really was.

In the great poker game that was the Breeders’ Cup Classic both Blame and Zenyatta drew a straight flush, with Blame’s being an ace-high. For differing
reasons, each performed superbly and produced a finish never to be forgotten by
those who witnessed it. While it might not have been among the fastest renewals
of the race, for sheer dramatics it has few equals.

By now it should be evident that I will be supporting BLAME for Horse
of the Year. He won it on the racetrack, albeit narrowly. Sometimes that’s all
it takes.

Zenyatta still has a lot of support among fans and actual Eclipse voters for
Horse of the Year, perhaps a majority. While there might be some valid reasons
for backing her, I’ve found some to be quite specious.

She ran a remarkable race in the Classic, but I would not describe it as a
moral victory as the large deficit she had to make up was entirely of her own
doing.

The alleged snubs at the past two Eclipse Award ceremonies do not in any
way mean she was “owed” this year regardless of her record on the racetrack.

A near-perfect record, mostly accomplished in previous years, and the
tangible evidence of her widespread popularity are factors that should not
supersede the objective facts of her 2010 record.

And to argue that Grade 1 races restricted to fillies and mares are equal in
all respects to those open to all horses flies in the face of logic.

One way to approach the Blame vs. Zenyatta debate objectively is to pretend
for a moment that we’re not talking about Zenyatta. Let’s say a mare named
Peter’s Princess, who was not a multiple undefeated champion going into the 2010
season, achieved the exact same record as Zenyatta, winning the five stakes
mentioned above and falling short by a head to Blame in the Classic. On the
basis of their two records, how close would this Horse of the Year vote be?

While some thin-skinned zealots might get the impression I’ve been “trashing” Zenyatta for the past several paragraphs, let me conclude with some praises.

Her performance in the Breeders’ Cup Classic was among the greatest I’ve ever
seen by a filly or mare, conclusively proving she is among the best of her sex
ever to set foot on an American racetrack. I can’t think of many fillies and
mares over the past half-century who would have come as close to winning that
race.

Her three consecutive older female championships is a remarkable achievement

a tribute to her soundness, durability and desire to win.

She richly deserves Hall of Fame induction at the earliest opportunity, which
really goes without saying. Blame might not ever make the Hall of Fame, but that
does not reflect poorly on him nor does it imply Zenyatta is greater than he is.
It is simply easier for females to reach the Hall of Fame because success
against males is not a prerequisite for induction.

Nor is a Horse of the Year title.