Commentary

Curlin still best horse this year

Updated: October 29, 2008, 6:23 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

Zenyatta is a magnificent filly who completed a perfect year with a rousing win in the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic. Maybe the best filly to race this decade, she's worthy of respect, admiration, platitudes and, of course, the older filly and mare championship.

But that's it. She picked the wrong year to be good. Zenyatta is not the Horse of the Year. Curlin is.

Historically, fillies have to beat colts to be named Horse of the Year. The only exception is when there is the rare year where no 3-year-old or older male does anything exceptional. That hasn't been the case in 2008. While Curlin certainly didn't help his Horse-of-the-Year case with a fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic, a race he was supposed to win, his overall body of work during the year was outstanding.

Except for one day at Santa Anita, Curlin was the best non-turf horse in the world. He conquered Dubai. He won the Stephen Foster, the Woodward and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. For the second straight year, he eclipsed $5 million in earnings, and he became the first North American-based horse to top $10 million in career earnings. From the time he burst on the scene with a huge maiden win at Gulfstream Park, he has had an historic campaign. The 2008 season has been a big part of it.

Horse of the Year ordinarily goes to a male horse who had a special year. Curlin's year, by any definition, was special.

The filly Azeri was named Horse of the Year in 2002 and did not face the boys, but that was a year when no male did anything special. War Emblem was named 3-year-old champion and Left Bank was the older horse champ. Both had relatively modest credentials.

Since the inception of the current Eclipse Award format, the only other fillies to be named Horse of the Year were All Along (1983) and Lady's Secret (1986). Lady's Secret defeated males in the Whitney in 1986 and All Along won three North American races against males in 1983.

The closest thing racing has seen to Zenyatta in recent years is Personal Ensign. Like Zenyatta, she was 7-for-7 during her 4-year-old season in 1988. Like Zenyatta, she capped her year with a win in what was then called the Breeders' Cup Distaff. But she was passed over for Horse of the Year by Alysheba, the outstanding male horse to race that year.

You can't fault trainer John Shirreffs and owners Jerry and Ann Moss for not running Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Classic. They put her in the race where she belonged and they collected $1,080,000 for winning an event where she had the competition at her mercy. But if they truly wanted to take a shot at Horse of the Year they should have entered her in the Classic. That way, she could have won the title on the racetrack.

Zenyatta is a magnificent filly, but there's no precedent for her being named Horse of the Year over a colt like Curlin. Maybe they'll bring her back next year and try again and, perhaps, aim for the Classic. Until then, they're going to have to settle for being second best.

On The Surface
There's little doubt that the nature of the Pro-Ride synthetic surface at Santa Anita had an effect on the outcome of the Breeders' Cup races. As is so often the case with synthetic surfaces, front-runners had a miserable time during the two days of Breeders' Cup racing, something that has been noted just about everywhere. Not a single Breeders' Cup race run over the synthetic track was won wire-to-wire and deep closers won most.

But the track also seemed biased toward outside paths, something few have noted. Over the course of two days, including the non-Breeders' Cup races, only one horse won from the one or two post on the Pro-Ride track and that was Zenyatta, who spent most of her race on the outside.

All through the Oak Tree meet, inside posts fared poorly. In sprints, posts one and two were a combined 18-for-272 for the meet for a measly winning percentage of 6.6 percent.

Considering how the track played during the Breeders' Cup, one of the most impressive horses to race over the two days was a loser. In the Juvenile, Square Eddie immediately went to the rail under Rafael Bejarano, set the early pace, dropped back to third and was then coming on again at the end to finish second. It remains to be seen how he will handle a non-synthetic surface, but he ran a tremendous race and deserves to be near the top of anyone's list of 2009 Derby contenders.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com