- Ray Paulick
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What an interesting choice Eclipse Award voters will have when they mark their ballots for Horse of the Year in a couple of months. The options will boil down to three horses: the 3-year-old early-season sensation, Big Brown, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner who bowed out just before the Breeders' Cup World Championships with an injury; the undefeated filly Zenyatta, who thrilled us with yet another sensational victory in the Ladies' Classic on Filly Friday; and Curlin, the reigning Horse of the Year whose title defense on Saturday in the Breeders' Cup Classic came up 2 ¾ lengths short while finishing fourth to European invader Raven's Pass.
There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to Horse of the Year, no rules or guidelines to follow -- only opinion and conjecture.
In this new era of handling horses with kid gloves, each one of the three leading Horse of the Year candidates had just seven starts in 2008. Zenyatta, of course, won them all, Big Brown won six, and Curlin five. This is a far cry from the good old days when horses raced a dozen times or more. But guess what? The good, old days aren't coming back.
There are two conventions that many Eclipse Award voters follow when considering a 3-year-old or filly for racing's top honor: Did that horse step outside of its division? In other words, did Big Brown beat older horses? Did Zenyatta prove her mettle against males?
It isn't a necessity for a horse to do that to capture the Horse of the Year title, but it always helps, especially if there are other worthy candidates to wear the crown.
Point Given the 2001 Horse of the Year, never had the opportunity to face older horses. The Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner suffered a career-ending injury shortly after adding the Travers Stakes to his resume at Saratoga. His main competition for the crown, Tiznow, was the reigning Horse of the Year and successfully defended his Breeders' Cup Classic title. But Tiznow lost three of his six starts in 2002, compared with Point Given's record of six wins in seven starts, his only defeat coming in the Kentucky Derby.
Charismatic, the 1999 Horse of the Year, lost his bid for the Triple Crown when he broke down in the Belmont and never raced again. He won Horse of the Year when the champion older male was Victory Gallop, whose record that year showed just three wins from eight starts. That year's Breeders' Cup Classic winner was longshot Cat Thief, who was not a contender for Horse of the Year.
Azeri will give Zenyatta's connections some hope that you can win Horse of the Year by keeping a filly within her division all year. Azeri was voted 2002 Horse of the Year after winning eight of her nine starts, all against fillies and mares, culminating with a five-length tour de force in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, the race whose name was changed this year to Ladies' Classic. She won the title in a landslide election, in large part because of the relative weakness of the other divisional champions.
War Emblem, the 3-year-old champion of 2002 who won the Derby and Preakness, won half of his 10 starts, and lost badly in his two tries against older horses, including the Breeders' Cup Classic in which he finished eighth to Volponi. Left Bank, the older male champion, won three of four starts, only one of them a Grade 1 race, before he died after an attack of colic in late summer.
The two most recent fillies to win Horse of the Year before Azeri -- All Along and Lady's Secret -- did beat the boys. Lady's Secret, the 1986 Horse of the Year when she won 10 of 15 starts, beat males in the Whitney Handicap in her title year. She ended her season with a wire-to-wire victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. All Along, a European grass superstar trained by Patrick Biancone, won the 1983 Horse of the Year title in North America and France after winning four Grade/Group 1 races against males in a span of six weeks: the Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp, the Rothmans International at Woodbine, the Turf Classic at Aqueduct, and the Washington, D.C., International at Laurel.
Big Brown defeated older horses once, in a non-graded turf stakes at Monmouth Park in mid-September that was designed to get him ready for the Breeders' Cup Classic. His other five victories -- an allowance race, the Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Haskell Invitational -- were against a 3-year-old crop that looks suspect in overall quality and depth, something for which he cannot be blamed.
Zenyatta has dominated her division, though she raced outside of her home base in California just once, that coming in April when she scored a decisive victory over 2007 Eclipse Award-winning filly Ginger Punch in the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park. In that race, Zenyatta's first Grade 1 win, the daughter of Street Cry had a six-pound weight advantage, carrying 116 to Ginger Punch's 122. Outside of the Apple Blossom and until she won the Ladies' Classic, critics could say she was beating up on a weak division.
That leaves us with Curlin, who began the defense of his 2007 Horse of the Year title in Dubai, winning an easy prep for the Dubai World Cup and then racing to an authoritative victory in the World Cup itself in late March. He returned to the U.S. to win the Stephen Foster Handicap under 128 pounds in June, then was defeated in a one-race grass experiment in the Man o' War at Belmont in July. Subsequent victories in the Woodward at Saratoga and Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont were not as visually impressive as some of his earlier wins, leading some of us to believe the Steve Asmussen-trained horse might be susceptible in the Classic.
He was, though what seemed to be an overconfident ride by Robbie Albarado that took Curlin extremely wide with an early move around the far turn, may have cost him, too. The fourth-place finish in the Classic was Curlin's worst in his 16-race career.
In this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, it appears Horse of the Year favoritism will fall on Zenyatta, who can't be faulted for anything she's done throughout 2008. But Eclipse Award voters who overlook the year that Curlin has had will be doing the reigning champion a disservice.
Ray Paulick is a Lexington, Ky.-based journalist who publishes the Paulick Report. (www.PaulickReport.com). Paulick served as editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse magazine from 1992 to 2007, and in the past 25 years has covered Thoroughbred racing, breeding and sales on six continents and in more than a dozen countries. He has appeared on numerous television and radio news programs offering his expertise on the industry. Contact Ray at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What an interesting choice Eclipse Award voters will have when they mark their ballots for Horse of the Year in a couple of months.