11/15/2009 3:17PM

Hard Choices


The campaign for both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta to be hailed in some way as 2009 Horse of the Year is picking up steam. A number of reporters have fantasized about it in print. The boss, Steven Crist, gave it his stamp of hopeful approval in his Daily Racing Form column. The implementation of the idea has been discussed at levels much higher than this.

Before weighing in on the merits of the concept, there are a couple of pesky technical questions I'd like to ask. First, and of relatively minor concern, is what to call them/it. Will each of them be known, forevermore, as a Horse of the Year? (Horse, unlike sheep, is not both singular and plural.) Would I be able to refer in print to Zenyatta as 2009 Horse of the Year without qualification, or without mentioning Rachel Alexandra (just as the Kentucky Derby is irrevocably attached to Yum! Brands)? Or will they be Co-Horses of the Year (not sure yet about the punctuation there), just as Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin will be co-hosts of the Oscars next year, yet funny in very different ways? In essence, will the award be diluted, or expanded, to include the two great champions? At the very least, the engravers will want to know.

Second, the mechanics of codification worry me. What would the Eclipse Award ballot look like? What I've heard so far is something like this:

_________________________  (fill in name of choice for Horse of Year)

_________________________  (mark YES if choice is both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta)

Sorry, kids, but this won't work. If I am a diehard Rachel rooter, why should I sacrifice my principles and compromise on power-sharing when I know in my heart my filly is the superior racehorse? The same thing goes for those who are convinced the sun rises and falls on Zenyatta. But with that second option hovering, such a ballot forces the voter to wonder if it's better to play safe and take half a loaf, or go all-in.

Crist, and others, have suggested that those who do not want to see Horse of the Year shared are radical true believers in the merits of either RA or Z who would rather go down with the ship that compromise. Perhaps. There is a little of the evangelical in all of us. However, this particular voter worries more about the message sent and precedents set by such a fundamental shift in the process.

For starters, to insist that the events of 2009 are unlikely to ever happen again is both misleading and depressing. Such a sentiment, I feel, is born of a prevailing sour mood in the racing world that everything stinks and wouldn't it be great if we could turn back the clock to the 1970s again. When grand racehorses like the mare and the filly come along, emerging from the darkness, there is a tendency to get giddy.

There is also an element tracking back to the condescending American attitude that fillies are simply not as capable as colts, and because they are not, these two must be creatures of such soaring superiority that they must be immediately canonized. Were Rachel and Zenyatta doing their thing in Europe, folks would be rightly impressed. They would be mentioned in the same breath as Miesque, Salsabil, All Along, Three Troikas, Triptych, Dahlia, Allez France, Goldikova and Zarkava, among others. And that would be sufficient.

To change the rules for Horse of the Year in this manner this one time would deprive the losing side of a good grumble, or the smug superiority that they were right all along and history will ultimately be on their side. A little smug superiority once in awhile is good for the soul. Anyway, such a bait and switch would be a slap in the face of the many voters throughout the previous 38 years of Eclipse Awrds who wrestled with decisions and managed to make them. And it would send a weird, inverted signal to those who view horse racing with a skeptical eye. They can compromise on something like this? The display in the window of the candy store? And yet there is no consensus on such vital issues as a unifying commissioner, medication rules, interstate licensing, inequities of takeout, or the fate of retired athletes, both human and equine?

A comment on this particular blog challenged the leaders of racing to exhibit the wisdom of Solomon and make it a tie for Horse of the Year between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. May I respectfully suggest he got the legend wrong. When the two women argued over the child, King Solomon threatened to cut the baby in two. The real mother immediately backed down and was rewarded by the king with sole custody, not joint.

It's a tough decision, voters. Now go and make it.