LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The five leading contenders for Horse of the Year were all in the Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday at Churchill Downs, and though two of them finished just a head apart for the win, with Blame holding off Zenyatta in a thriller, the debate over who should be Horse of the Year seems certain to last at least another two months, right through the Eclipse Awards on Jan. 17 in Miami Beach, Fla.
Blame won the race and never let Zenyatta go by him, but Zenyatta certainly won over whatever remaining doubters she still had with her courageous run from far back. It will be interesting to see if the emotional arc to this story mirrors 2009. Last year, after Zenyatta beat males in the Classic at Santa Anita, sentiment for Zenyatta ran high. But by the time ballots went out in mid-December, more voters were impressed by the body of work of Rachel Alexandra, whose ambitious 2009 campaign ended in late summer.
"For me, the deciding factor in any close calls is head-to-head matchups," said trainer Todd Pletcher, whose quest to train the 2010 Horse of the Year ended with the poor performance turned in by Quality Road in the Classic. "While I think Zenyatta ran an unbelievable race, had not only a tremendous year but a tremendous career, ultimately it should be decided on the racetrack. But I don't get a vote."
Those who do are members of the National Turf Writers Association, employees of Daily Racing Form , and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which includes racing secretaries and chart callers at Equibase.
Neither Blame nor Zenyatta will race again. Blame will enter stud at Claiborne Farm, which owns Blame along with Adele Dilschneider.
"It was a clean-run race, and both horses ran their races," said Dell Hancock, whose family owns Claiborne. "I don't think she ever passed Blame -- not even in the gallop-out. She's a wonderful mare and she's been great for racing, but I think Blame is a very, very special horse, and I think the best horse won."
The Zenyatta camp was disappointed she was not Horse of the Year in 2009. John Shirreffs, who so magnificently guided her through her career, believes she deserves this year's title.
"Oh yes," he said. "She's done so much for the business. That would be an appropriate reward."
There would be no debate had Zenyatta gotten up in the Classic. But she dropped well out of it early, trailing by more than 16 lengths after a quarter-mile. She then ran successive quarter-miles of 23.60 seconds, 23.80, 24.40, and a final quarter-mile in 24 flat to just miss.
"The fact is she put in an incredible run," Shirreffs said. "She proved what a champion she is. It was unfortunate she was so far back. It left her a lot to do."
Both horses are assured of divisional titles. Blame will be champion older male, and Zenyatta, for the third straight year, will be champion older female.
That's what the Breeders' Cup was designed for, to decide championships, and several horses locked up titles Friday and Saturday.
Both winners of 2-year-old races on the main track, Uncle Mo in the Juvenile and Awesome Feather in the Juvenile Fillies, completed unbeaten years and should be overwhelming choices in their respective divisions.
Lookin At Lucky, who finished fourth in the Classic, appears to have the strongest body of work among 3-year-old males.
Blind Luck, second in the Ladies' Classic, also had the most productive year among 3-year-old fillies and should win that title.
Dubai Majesty, who won the Filly and Mare Sprint, and Big Drama, winner of the Sprint, considerably improved their already strong 2010 r é sum é s.
The turf categories are a bit trickier.
Among females, there is no question that the best horse to race in North America this year is Goldikova, who scored an unprecedented third straight victory in the Mile. She was utterly brilliant, and her race was the high point of Saturday's card until the Classic.
The choice facing voters, though, is whether to reward a horse who ran just once in this country this year, or opt for a horse who was based here and accomplished the most, which would include Proviso, a four-time Grade 1 winner who was seventh in the Mile, and the late Tuscan Evening.
Among males, Gio Ponti is the defending turf champ, and he ran a terrific race Saturday when second in the Mile to Goldikova. But he won just twice in seven starts this year. That said, both wins were in Grade 1 races. He also was second in two other Grade 1 races. And the male horses who beat him in those Grade 1 races, Debussy and Winchester, both failed in the BC Turf, so voters are likely to find Gio Ponti the most deserving choice for the second straight year.
As for the humans, Pletcher sent out three Breeders' Cup winners to pad a 2010 résumé that includes his first Kentucky Derby win and the most purse earnings among his brethren. However, only one of his horses, Uncle Mo, is certain to be a divisional champion.
There is likely to be great sentiment for the work done by Shirreffs with Zenyatta. And Jerry Hollendorfer, who won the Dirt Mile with Dakota Phone, has had the best year of his illustrious career, which includes his third Kentucky Oaks win with Blind Luck, who should be an Eclipse Award winner. If nothing else, Hollendorfer, the fourth-winningest trainer of all time, at least should put himself in position to finally go into the Hall of Fame next year. Amazingly, he was not even on the final ballot this year.
Garrett Gomez, who has had a good but not great year by his standards, significantly boosted his Eclipse Award chances by winning three races, including on Blame. John Velazquez won twice, while Ramon Dominguez and Julien Lepa roux were shut out.