10/23/2011 3:56PM

Early Thoughts on Horse of the Year

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If Havre de Grace or Tizway wins the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 13 days, either would be an obvious and worthy choice as America’s Horse of the Year. If both lose, it gets a lot more complicated.

A victory by Havre de Grace would result in a landslide, perhaps unanimous HOTY selection, and rightly so. On top of her victory against males in the Woodward, a Classic triumph at 10 furlongs against a field expected to include the nation’s top older males (Tizway, Flat Out, Game on Dude) and best active 3-year-old males (Uncle Mo, To Honor and Serve, Stay Thirsty) would be game, set and match. It would be a pleasant change from the opinion wars of the last two years to end a Breeders’ Cup with the sport’s biggest title so clearly settled.

If Tizway wins, he should be almost as clear a choice. Victories in the Met Mile, Whitney and Classic would comprise the best resume of any horse this season, with victories in arguably the most important 8-, 9- and 10-furlong races we run, and a winning record against all the other contenders.

Some otherwise astute pundits have already conceded the title to Havre de Grace even if Tizway beats her, but for the life of me I can’t understand their reasoning. This is not a situation like last year, when Blame’s victory over Zenyatta was considered less important than the weight of Zenyatta’s career and historic importance to the sport. Whether or not you agreed with the choice, and I didn’t, it was at least an understandable exception. Even putting aside the rest of her career, Zenyatta was 5-for-5, all in Grade 1 races, going into the Classic. Havre de Grace has won only three Grade 1’s this year, and has already had her narrow-defeat mulligan (losing the Delaware Handicap to Blind Luck.)

Beyond those two scenarios, it’s messy.

If Flat Out wins, beating all of the above and ending his season with victories in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Classic, he deserves serious consideration. But I suspect voters are going to find it hard to overlook his two no-excuse second-place finishes at Saratoga, first to Tizway in the Whitney and then to Havre de Grace in the Woodward. While a Classic victory would even the score at 1-1 with each of them, it would still feel as if he lost two out of the three big ones.

What about a victory by one of the 3-year-olds? Uncle Mo is clearly a brilliantly talented horse, and a triumph against this field would be a tremendous achievement, but his 2011 record to date is hardly the stuff of Horse of the Year honors: two victories in four starts, one in an ungraded stakes against vastly inferior competition, the other a Grade 2 victory in a four-horse field in the slop. I’m a fan of the horse and might be rooting for him, but even I would find it hard to make him HOTY off a campaign with a single Grade 1 victory. (You can’t just vote for the “best” horse, or Ghostzapper would have been the 2006 recipient for a one-race Met Mile campaign.) Similarly, I can’t quite warm up to the idea that Stay Thirsty (one 2011 grade 1, in a weak Travers) or To Honor and Serve (still seeking his first career Grade 1) would merit a HOTY title with a Classic victory.

Before you pick up your torches and pitchforks, let me emphasize that none of these thoughts reflect my opinions of who is most likely to win the Classic or who is the “best” horse among them, but rather a projection of what-if HOTY scenarios involving a potential victory by the four favorites for a very tricky race. Tizway, Uncle Mo and Havre de Grace are questionable going 10 furlongs, Flat Out handles the distance but is winless against Havre de Grace and Tizway, international star So You Think is a pure guess on a dirt track, and there are real questions of quality beyond that quintet.

Thank goodness I’ve got another 10 days to make a pick.

Update: As several commenters have pointed out, I probably gave Game On Dude short shrift in the discussion above. A Classic victory, on top of his G1 victories in the SA Handicap and Goodwood and narrow defeat in the Gold Cup, would clearly make him a serious contender for the HOTY award.

David R More than 1 year ago
I think the Horse of The Year is Cape Blanco. Why does the HOY have to be one who primarily raced on the main track? He won three of the most prestigeous turf races in the country; The Man O'War, The Arlington Million and Joe Hirsch. He would have won the BC Turf if he hadn't been injured. He has to seriously considered.
Affirmed3 More than 1 year ago
In the B.C.Juvenile Filly Turf : Daystthespa is sitting on a big effort and has looked good for the past two weeks, she has four excellent works coming into this race and will be forwardly placed and will have to be caught come stretch time. JMO
Wayne 80 More than 1 year ago
As a refresher (and because you love to make tables) it would be helpful to have a list of multple G1 winners running in BC races so as to see the total field for HOY, should not be limited just to the Classic in this unusual season. [The only multiple G1 winners in 2011 running in the BC are Havre de Grace, who has won three, and eight horses who have won two: Ask the Moon, Dubawi Heights, Get Stormy, It's Tricky, Stacelita, Teaks North, Turbulent Descent and Weemissfrankie. -SC]
fastjoey More than 1 year ago
To my eye, "pound-for-pound" the biggest 'load' of all, especially among the 3-year olds, is Ruler on Ice --- what a solid specimen he is! Steve, what if Ruler on Ice upsets, and overturns the whole apple-cart? Would the Belmont-Breeders' Cup Classic winner then be a HOY candidate? Certainly, that 'double' trumps Tizways; and Havre de Grace's Woodward win. Could you vote for him?
fedworker4 More than 1 year ago
First of all, HOTY, like the Eclipse awards, seem to me to mostly be a form of advertising for the breeding industry and not really an objective evaluation of horse quality. Second, Goldikova has been racing against and beating world-class males, including the Breeders' Cup for the last three years. If she does so again, I don't see how she can fairly be denied an award like HOTY, whatever its purpose may be. Finally, Gio Ponti seems to be rounding into form, and if he beats Goldikova I think he may be worthy of consideration. His worldwide travels and his recent Shadwell Turf Mile have shown him running against the best, as well as in the Breeders' Cup the last few years.
Jim C. More than 1 year ago
If Havre de Grace wins the Classic, she is an automatic lock for Horse of the Year. Ditto for Game on Dude. Flat Out has done little this year, save for winning a dismal running of the Jockey Club Gold Cup. If a bomber wins the Breeders' Cup Classic, then Blind Luck deserves to be Horse of the Year. Along with Havre de Grace, she was the best horse of either sex to race in 2011. The decisive race, was the Delaware Handicap, on Havre de Grace's home track. That was the best race of 2011. Blind Luck also had to overcome questionable conditioning by her trainer, who insisted on racing her in the El Encino (Jan. 16) and La Canada (Feb. 13), whilst Havre de Grace received a four-a-half month (Nov. 5 to March 19) freshening. Too bad Blind Luck is not running now in the Classic. A mile-and-a-quarter was her optimal distance, and she would have finally had some pace to close into.
Fred More than 1 year ago
Please add my correction. Blame beat Battle Plan in the Stephen Foster at Churchill, and it took Battle Plan's injury to get by him. Battle Plan never ran again.
Mark More than 1 year ago
non-plussed I just can't get my head around the HOY scenario! Although I have been on the pluss side of TW and HDG with thier victories this year and rooting for both, the race seems almost anticlimatic even in deciding whom most probably will be HOY. From the Handicapping angle I have already made up my mind. I just can't manufacture another probable winner other than TW or HDG, searching or manifesting a different outcome from the most likely is never profitable.
Mark More than 1 year ago
non-plussed I just can't get my head around the HOY scenario! Although I have been on the pluss side of TW and HDG with thier victories this year and rooting for both, the race seems almost anticlimatic even in deciding whom most probably will be HOY. From the Handicapping angle I have already made up my mind. I just can't manufacture another probable winner other than TW or HDG, searching or manifesting a different outcome from the most likely is never profitable.
carl More than 1 year ago
If one of the longer odds horses takes the Classic, do horses from other divisions get HOY consideration? What if, say, Union Rags dominates the Juvenille, or Stacelita dominates the F&MT?