1954, 2010

The Great Horse of the Year Debate is on once again. I would like to make a few observations on the subject, albeit more foolosophically than most (I hope).

Some people seem to think that Horse of the Year (HOTY) can be determined by some sort of formula such as who won the most G1 races, who ran the highest speed figures, etc. If there were such a formula for determining HOTY, we would have no need for voters at all, right???? So clearly the purpose of having voters is for them to exercise their human judgment on the matter.

Eclipse Award ballots do not come with some prescribed formula for deciding HOTY. Clearly it should be the “best” horse, but “best” is left pretty much undefined and up to the judgment of the voters.

I have heard the argument that if you thought Zenyatta should have been HOTY in 2009 because she won the BC Classic, you should vote for Blame this year for the same reason. That seems to make pretty much sense . . . at least superficially.

The only problem with this argument is that the best horse does not always win the race. That seems to be particularly true of the biggest races such as the Kentucky Derby (witness Native Dancer in 1953) and the BC Classic. If you tweak that argument just a little bit and say that HOTY should be the horse who ran the best race in the BC Classic, you might get an entirely different answer to the question.

Or you could turn that argument on its head and say that the winner of the BC Classic is not automatically HOTY, pointing back to 2009 as the most recent example. The only problem with that argument is that 2009 is a bad example, an example in which voters for HOTY behaved like a bunch of Mad Hatters.

I do believe that the BC Classic is where you should START the search for HOTY. If the winner of that race or the horse who ran the best race there has enough other credentials, there you go, the search has ended. And horses who decline to run in the BC Classic for any reason other than legitimate injury should have one big strike against them in HOTY consideration.

Many times though the BC Classic does more to muddy the picture than to clarify it. To cite an extreme and hypothetical example, if Pleasant Prince (the longest shot on the board at 63-1) had won the Classic and Blame and Zenyatta had finished 11th and 12th (or vice versa), then you would have to look elsewhere for HOTY. In that case and that case only Goldikova would be a very worthy candidate for HOTY.

We are instructed that HOTY is about accomplishments in the year in question only. That is generally true, but it is not engraved in stone along with the Ten Commandments. Consider the words again of Charles Hatton in writing about Native Dancer in 1954:

“A champion–hailed rather than merely acknowledged–each of his three seasons in competition, Native Dancer was voted Horse of the Year in 1954. The balloting for this distinction lacked the spontaneous unanimity accorded Busher and some others of the past, however, for ‘The Dancer’ ran only three times as a four-year-old, and a number of the critics felt the three-year-old High Gun more deserving of the honors on the basis of his attainments during the year. But nobody with the vaguest knowledge of form questioned he was the classiest performer in training, and many regard the marvelous gray as a Horse of the Ages, one whose challenging record of 21 victories in 22 starts will be quoted for posterity by generations of turf commentators.”

High Gun clearly accomplished a lot more than Native Dancer did in 1954 (the latter won all three of his races, but only one, the Metropolitan, was a stakes race). Just as clearly High Gun was not in the same league as Native Dancer. Considering that Native Dancer had lost HOTY to Tom Fool the year before and that Native Dancer was clearly a “better” horse than High Gun in 1954 (even though he showed it only once, in the Metropolitan), voters threw out the “this year only” dictum and made Native Dancer 1954 HOTY.

They were correct to do so. And though the balloting may have been close, all three organizations (Daily Racing Form, Turf and Sport Digest, and Thoroughbred Racing Associations) came to the same conclusion, that Native Dancer was 1954 HOTY.

Consider the words of Charles Hatton again, this time writing about High Gun in 1954:

“No other of the season’s campaigners accomplished quite so much, and indeed there was a disposition in some quarters to feel he had earned Horse of the Year honors, even among those who fully appreciated Native Dancer’s superlative class, and would not have backed High Gun to beat him at any odds. There was much to be said for the rectitude of their position, on the basis that the award is annual, and by the same token the candidates should be judged strictly upon their form during that particular season, not career-wise. For the Dancer, it was a retroactive honor.”

No one would have backed High Gun to beat Native Dancer at any odds. Hatton acknowledged that generally speaking HOTY should be about one season only. Nevertheless, he concluded: “For the Dancer, it was a retroactive honor.”

There you have it in black and white. If you need a historical precedent to accept the notion that sometimes “one season only” has to go out the window and HOTY can be retroactive, you have it here. Voters used some common sense in making Native Dancer 1954 HOTY. The idea that HOTY can be retroactive under certain circumstances should NOT be rejected out of hand. I recommend that Eclipse Award voters in 2010 consider it carefully.

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