Commentary

That's why it's Horse of YEAR

Updated: November 20, 2009, 10:53 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

The divisive debate over Horse of the Year honors is not entirely about Rachel Alexandra versus Zenyatta, who the better horse is, or East versus West. It actually boils down to what does Horse of the Year really mean. It's a term open to interpretation, with no handy guidelines or instructions available to voters. See it one way, and you're probably a Rachel supporter. See it another way, and you're no doubt a Zenyatta backer.

I've always believed that the Horse of the Year should be awarded to the horse who had the best overall year and accomplished the most. And that's why I will vote without hesitation for Rachel Alexandra.

No rational person could possibly argue that Zenyatta had a better overall year than Rachel did. Rachel won more races, won more big races, and created more stirring memories and moments. This shouldn't need repeating, but I will do so anyway: She won the Kentucky Oaks by 20 lengths, became the first filly to win the Preakness since 1924, thrashed the 3-year-old male champion in waiting in the Haskell and became the first 3-year-old filly to win the Woodward. In a campaign that stretched across seven months and included appearances at seven racetracks, she pieced together arguably the most incredible campaign by any horse, any age, any sex, any time.

Before the Breeders' Cup, Zenyatta's 2009 campaign paled in comparison. She raced just four times and, sorry, didn't do anything all that special.

What she did do was to win the Breeders' Cup Classic and do so with such authority and brilliance that it was among the greatest performances in racing history. The instant she crossed the finish line, her legion of fans began to trumpet her Classic win as the defining moment in the Horse of the Year battle, declaring that Zenyatta won the "Super Bowl of Racing" and that Rachel Alexandra and her owner shouldn't be allowed to back into a Horse of the Year title.

Here's the problem: Until someone comes along and changes the rules, the Breeders' Cup is not the Super Bowl of racing. Whoever wins the Super Bowl is the champion. Case closed. The Breeders' Cup is a very important event that has a lot to do with deciding year-end honors, and nothing more.

That's why no one dreamed of naming Classic winner Arcangues the Horse of the Year in 1993 and no serious observer will cast an Eclipse vote this year for a one-race wonder such as Sprint winner Dancing in Silks.

It took Horse of the Year voters no time at all to figure out that a Breeders' Cup win didn't have to be a part of a horse's credentials. John Henry sat out the inaugural Breeders' Cup in 1984 but was named Horse of the Year nonetheless. A year later, it was the same story. Spend A Buck was nowhere to be found when the 1985 Breeders' Cup was run but was still named Horse of the Year.

There have been 25 horses named Horse of the Year since the Breeders' Cup was inaugurated, and seven of them did not compete on Cup Day. Three others ran in the Breeders' Cup and lost.

What Zenyatta did in the Breeders' Cup was extraordinary. In any other year, the Horse of the Year race would go to Zenyatta and it wouldn't be a contest, but not in the year of Rachel Alexandra. Zenyatta's 2009 campaign is really all about one race, albeit a very special race.

Since the Classic, there has been a lot of support for naming both horses Horse of the Year. If I were given that option, I would gladly vote for co-Horses of the Year. I don't feel good about not voting for Zenyatta.

It's just not going to happen. Alex Waldrop, the head of the NTRA, which reigns over the Eclipse Awards and Horse of the Year, has come out against any and all proposals to have the two share the award. Part of the problem is that no one can come up with a workable plan to make that happen.

Zenyatta's supporters won't agree with anything I have had to say. They argue that their horse showed up for the big day, the championship race, had a remarkable year in her own right and beat the very best horses in the sport in the most important race of the year and did so with authority. If that's what they think Horse of the Year is all about, they are right to support Zenyatta for the title. A lot of smart, unbiased Eclipse voters agree with them.

I'm just not in that camp. Rachel Alexandra did more in 2009. She's my Horse of the Year.

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

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