A vote for horse racing

Updated: December 23, 2010, 1:06 PM ET
By Claire Novak | Special to ESPN.com

"Henry Moreno says they are a farce. Charlie Whittingham says they are politics. Wayne Lukas says 'They are an opinion poll, at best …' the subject is the Eclipse Awards, thoroughbred racing's version of the Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, Grammys, ad infinitum." -- Bill Christine, How Genuine are Eclipse Awards? The Los Angeles Times, Dec. 25, 1982

Every December conversation comes down to this, the final debate of the season. In bars and restaurants, on rail-side mornings and trackside afternoons, racing pundits argue the merits of top competitors as more than 200 voters deliberate past performances and cast their votes for Horse of the Year. It's been that way for ages.

Although Horse of the Year honors go back more than a century, the Eclipse Awards were instituted in 1971, when staff members of the Daily Racing Form came together with the National Turf Writers' Association and racing secretaries from tracks across the country (represented by the Thoroughbred Racing Associations). The Form had been issuing its year-end honors since 1936, while the TRA began its Horse of the Year award in 1950. Upon several occasions this resulted in multiple honorees -- as in 1970, when the Form picked Fort Marcy and the TRA selected a horse named Personality.

"The problem is that Horse of the Year voting carries no rigid conditions." -- James Tuite, Affirmed, Exceller or Slew? One's Due to be Horse of Year, Louisville Courier-Journal, Nov. 4, 1978

The 1971 inauguration of the Eclipse Awards effectively took care of the issue with multiple honorees. But through the decades, even as numerous great runners went head-to-head for the title, one glaring problem remained. Often bemoaned by various Turf writers and fans was the fact that no specific guidelines existed to define Horse of the Year, and each voter was very much left to his or her devices in determining the qualifications that made a worthy award recipient. Forty years later, it's a problem that still remains.

"Part of the problem with Horse of the Year balloting is that the voters have never been able to agree on how the award should be defined. One school of thought has it, simply, that the Horse of the Year should be the one horse that you think could beat all the other candidates under equal weights at a mile and a quarter … the counterargument is that the Horse of the Year should be the one that created the most interest and had the most impact. The one, in other words, that will first spring to mind when a given year is mentioned." -- Billy Reed, Horse of Year Wide Open, but Alysheba Gets This Vote, Lexington Herald-Leader Dec. 28, 1987

It is not surprising that this year exactly such a debate rages in the minds of the voters who will decide whether Blame, winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic, or Zenyatta, the then-unbeaten race mare who ran second to him by a head, will be named Horse of the Year. The merits and flaws of each candidate have been thoroughly discussed elsewhere. Ultimately, the choice lies between the quintessential, classic racehorse and a runner who embodied the very spirit of the sport. Better year on paper? The colt. Better year before the world? The mare.

"The Horse of the Year title, depending on whom you listen to, is either racing's supreme honor or a meaningless popularity contest … more than ever it also seems an absurd exercise in choosing among horses who cannot be compared." -- Steve Crist, Horse of the Year: Is it Meaningless Contest? New York Times News Service, Nov. 15, 1985

The chance that Zenyatta could really miss out on Horse of the Year honors for the third straight season (she lost to Curlin in 2008 and Rachel Alexandra in 2009) is a very real one. As in 2004, when Smarty Jones drew a record crowd of 120,139 to watch his Belmont bid for the Triple Crown, yet lost to Ghostzapper in the polls, it is remarkably clear -- what a horse does to raise the sport's profile is not taken into enough serious consideration.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to determine that, in the six years that have passed since Smarty Jones' campaign, the sport of horse racing has slipped even more from the public eye. Perhaps there was less coverage of Zenyatta's campaign because there is less coverage of racing in general. And the countless Turf writers who have taken severance packages or early retirements or who have simply lost their jobs would doubtless be inclined to agree: For a horse to attract the attention of major news outlets across the country and for such outlets to recognize and report on her greatness is no small feat.

"… Interpretation is up to the voter. Is the Horse of the Year the one who did the most from January to December … is it the horse who most dominated his or her division? Is it the horse who got the job done when it counted? Is it the horse who was the most spectacular?" -- Mark Ratzky, Horse of the Year Has No Clear Definition, Daily Racing Form, Nov. 20, 1991

A Vote for Zenyatta is a vote for Horse Racing

A complete Eclipse Award ballot with selections and opinions from this reporter will be published next week. For now, suffice it to say it is the opinion here that a vote for Zenyatta is, simply put, a vote for horse racing. To recognize this kind of runner as vital to the sport's survival is common sense, not emotional gibberish as some would choose to believe. The assumption that rational, fact-based voters are those who choose Blame while those who pick Zenyatta are somehow less professional or lack understanding of the game is absurd.

Here are the facts. The sport of horse racing in North America is in deep trouble precisely because of a lack of incredible contenders, those great runners who stick around long enough to develop a following. We need these horses, and we need to encourage their connections to take the risks involved to keep such horses in training past their initial seasons. These are the horses that keep racing alive.

That a Champion 6-year-old mare, the first female to win the Breeders' Cup Classic, would return in 2010 not only to campaign through five earlier Grade 1 starts but to take on the boys in the season finale (over a track she'd never tried) was remarkably game. Outstandingly unusual. More than deserving of honor. It is also narrow-minded to argue that a loss to Blame in the Breeders' Cup Classic should be the determining factor for Zenyatta's Horse of the Year loss when the 2009 Horse of the Year did not even run in that event.

Fifty years from now when racing fans look back upon 2010 how will they define the season? By a big bay mare and her slightly controversial campaign and her close-but-so-there victories, and by the way she ran her heart out at Churchill Downs on a day when the stands were buzzing and even the most logical racing pundits were shouting her name through that thrilling stretch run.

"Whether the occasion be an election or a horse race, there can be only one winner -- barring, of course, a dead-heat or a tie, either of which is comparatively rare. All the rest must be losers. In many instances, though, the losers seem to deserve a better fate ... (and) with no real consensus as to what constitutes a champion, the voting for year-end honors might be considered analogous to a jury's deliberation on a case without having received instructions from a judge." -- Frank T. Phelps, To the Losers, The Lexington Leader, Dec. 20, 1973

Disclaimer

This party's decision to vote for Zenyatta was reached after much deliberation and is certainly not meant as a knock against Blame, whose campaign was brilliantly managed by Claiborne Farm and trainer Al Stall Jr. and whose determination and gutsy performances on the track were the complete illustration of the classic racehorse. Also recognized was the exemplary communication of planned starts by the connections. Their straightforward dealings with members of the media were appreciated at all times. The respect felt by this party for the horse and those associated with him is second to none, and great fondness is felt when recalling his 2010 campaign and the memories made throughout.

The great Joe Hirsch wrote, perhaps most famously, "Once there was a horse named Kelso. But only once." Over this situation, one is inclined to wonder what his thoughts would have been. "Once there was a horse named Zenyatta?" Perhaps. Or maybe "Once there was a horse named Blame who beat Zenyatta."

Again, "But only once."

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.