09/19/2010 3:01PM

Less is Less


The average number of starts by America's Horse of the Year has declined from 11.8 in the 1960's to between 9 and 10 from the 1970's through the 1990's and to 7.3 in the 2000's. The 2010's may start with the bar even lower.

If the four leading contenders for the HOTY honor in 2010 stick to their current schedules en route to a showdown in the Breeders' Cup Classic Nov. 6, they will have made only 5 (Blame), 6 (Quality Road, Zenyatta) or 7 (Lookin at Lucky)starts this year.

Only 3 of the last 50 HOTY honorees made six or fewer starts in a season, all in the last six years. Only 6 others made just 7 starts, all since 1977.

Only 1 of the last 14 HOTY's has made 10 or more starts -- and that was, of all horses, Charismatic, who made those 10 starts in the first 5 1/2 months of 1999. That 1 for 14 stretch follows a period when 19 of 36 HOTY's made 10 or more starts during their championship seasons, led by Damascus (16 in 1967) and Lady's Secret (15 in 1986).

Secretariat, often cited as the poster child for foreshortened careers because he was retired after his 3-year-old campaign, still made more starts in two seasons (21) than Zenyatta (20) will have made in four.

This year's campaigns by the Big Four are unusually brief even by recent standards, filled with long gaps that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago in the absence of being sidelined by injury. Blame made his third start of the year in the Whitney Aug. 1 and is waiting nine weeks to return in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.  Quality Road, unraced for nearly three months between the Donn and the Met Mile, is not scheduled  to run in the nine weeks between the Woodward and the Classic. Lookin at Lucky took 11 weeks off between the Preakness and Haskell, and another nine between that race and the Indiana Derby. Zenyatta has raced four times in eight months.

So Zenyatta will come into the Classic without having faced a male (or probably even a Grade 1-winning filly) this year; Lookin at Lucky will be making his first start against older horses; and Blame and Quality Road, who had the only meaningful HOTY-level showdown this year when they finished a nose apart in the Whitney, will be meeting for only the second time after ducking each other in the Woodward and Gold Cup.

"Less is more" is a popular mantra in racing these days, and it may have some value when it comes to reducing the glut of racing in some markets, but when it comes to championship-level racing, less is just less and it is diminishing the sport.