10/23/2011 3:56PM

Early Thoughts on Horse of the Year


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.