11/15/2009 4:17PM

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.

Bill More than 1 year ago
Andy Beyer has been a colorful asset to racing for decades and one of his early books hooked me on handicapping. If you think that he has an East Coast bias, then go back and read the column he wrote several years ago in which he picked Del Mar over Saratoga as the race meet to attend each summer. And if you want to embarrass him perhaps a bit, see his original book Picking Winners in which he asserts that the pace of the race has absolutely no effect on the final time.
Harold Wellington More than 1 year ago
Dear Jay, Just a note on Bobby Frankel. What people don't know about him was he was a great trainer of people. It does not surprise me that he was a friend of Torres and I'm positive that he could have done a better job of training any sports team. People didn't know this about him. I too had a daughter from a broken marriage, and when I asked Bobby for a job in Saratoga to see my daughter, he promply gave me one. I was amazed at how little he interfered with the day to day activities but how his policies created such an inspiring environment for an athlete.This is the sign of greatness and I had not seen it since I worked for Charlie Whittingham.He was kind of a genius and it saddens me that he's gone without me having the chance to say goodbye.It's the end of an era really.He was so kind to my friends, he will be missed.
David More than 1 year ago
Jay, You make the main points against handing out two Eclipse Awards for horse of the year -- one to Zenyatta, the other to Rachel Alexandra. A few East Coast horse race pundits had anointed Rachel Alexandra as the horse of the year (HOY), even before the Breeders Cup Classic was run. Some of the former skeptics appear to be changing their strategy since Zenyatta’s Classic victory. They seem to be conceding that Zenyatta is horse of the year, but they want to make sure that Alexandra also takes home the prize. The message sent: if your horse can’t win within the system already in place, then you change the rules; not in mid-stream, but after the races are over and the results are in. Even though the DRF has a few writers based on the West Coast, it seems to primarily reflect East Coast regional interests. Its current favorite topics are all things dirt -- the tracks and the horses that have won on that surface. Maybe a West Coast outlet is needed to provide more balance. The biased coverage could be seen in some of the articles that were printed in the DRF leading up to the Breeders Cup races. Prior to the Breeders Cup Classic, a handful of East Coast horse pundits were among Rachel Alexandra’s biggest supporters; she had raced on their favorite East Coast dirt tracks. Granted most of the columns are individual opinions, but I did not read any blatant HOY pitches for Zenyatta as I did for Alexandra. Instead they wrote how Zenyatta, even with a win in the Breeder Cup Classic, could not win horse of the year. They downplayed her record. Zenyatta answered all their questions on the field; her historic Classic victory has left no doubt that she is the best thoroughbred, male or female, to run in the U.S. this year. With respect to their campaigns, Alexandra ran 8 times; Zenyatta ran 5 times; both were undefeated this year and ran on their home track surfaces. Alexandra ran mainly in races restricted for thee-year-old fillies. She ran in the Preakness, beating the three-year-old males; her main competitors were Mine That Bird and Summer Bird. She did not run against the older mares. The Woodward was the only race Alexandra stepped out of her age group and ran against the more seasoned older male horses; she was hard pressed to hold off Macho Again at the 1 1/8 distance. That race gave an indication as to how she would perform against the older top quality horses. She did not put away her opponents like she did when she ran against the three-year olds. Had the 3-year-old fillies or males she beat been a stronger group perhaps a better case could have been made for HOY. Alexandra ran an admirable campaign but she did not run against the highest level of competitors to race this year. On the other hand, Zenyatta beat the better and more proven quality horses. She beat the most competitive group to run this year in the Breeders Cup Classic. If Alexandra struggled to put away the older horses in the Woodward, Zenyatta left no doubt as to her dominance, overpowering multiple Grade I runners in the Classic. In that race she beat Alexandra’s main foes including Mine That Bird and Summer Bird. She had already dominated against the best older mares. She beat Life Is Sweet three times. Life Is Sweet defeated the best fillies and mares in the Ladies Classic. The pre-race analyses and assumptions had to be thrown out the window with her landmark run. Zenyatta shattered many long-held records when she flew past the others at the Santa Anita finish line. There should be only one horse of the year. It will be interesting to see how the voting blocks split their votes; in particular, if the vote is close.
Daunice Keslar More than 1 year ago
Undefeated 129 lbs 1 1/4 miles Zenyatta is HOY
Potch More than 1 year ago
Will there be a tie for owners of the year?
Ernie More than 1 year ago
I'd have paid at least a grand to sit in the backseat during your road trip with Bobby. I'd pick my spots, flurry a bit, then get out and listen some more. I wouldn't have embarrassed myself. I can talk. How much I know - different story.
Alex More than 1 year ago
Zenyatta is horse of the year period. Rachel hasn't and won't win going a mile and a quarter the classic distance.
C More than 1 year ago
There is no dangerous precedent to be set here. Mineshaft, Charismatic, Point Given, and Holy Bull all won HoY without running in the Breeders Cup. And those Cups were on dirt, no less. You guys are listening to Joe Tessitore too much. It's 1 race. It was a good race, probably the best of the year in North America. But the best race doesn't trump the best campaign, which included several huge races, even if they don't top the Classic. If the best single race beats the best campaign, then Ghostzapper should've probably won HoY in 2005 based on his Met Mile win over Saint Liam, a horse he had previously beaten.
Harvey Hochberg More than 1 year ago
Dear Mr Hovdey....Your remembrance column regarding Bobby Frankel is the finest piece of writing any friend could ever hope for.You truly captured the essence of what he was about,with empathy, humor and much respect.Your lasting image is surely the one that defines why Bobby was held in the highest esteem by those who love,not only the game,but all animals.Thank you.
Jay H More than 1 year ago
George -- My passport this year was stamped Louisville, Pimlico, New York and New Mexico. Guess which one was most fun?