12/12/2010 11:58AM

Zenyatta of the Years


The ballots for Eclipse Awards will be sent out this coming week, to a list of 247 voters who represent such diverse constituencies as Equibase chart-callers and field reps, racing secretaries, turf writers and a whole slew of folks who work for the Daily Racing Form, which is as it should be, since the Racing Form is one of the sponsors of the awards. So there.

A lot is made over the regional bias inherent in the spread of the ballots, dividing the racing nation into red states and blue states -- or B states and Z states, as it were. But I prefer to give my fellow voters the benefit of the doubt. In this age of rampant information and readily available video, waking up in Rhode Island does not mean the game ends at the Adirondacks. And out here in the unsettled West, we cheer like idiots at the sight of a wild Whitney or a robust running of the Haskell.

A host of my colleagues have stepped up to tell the world how they will vote for Horse of the Year and what they think of people who vote otherwise. There is a rabid Republican/Tea Party tone to Blame's supporters, demanding a literal reading of both the Constitution and the Old Testament, while Zenyatta's backers seem fraught with Democratic equivocation, conceding points to the other side. One noted columnist splits the electorate neatly into the rational and the irrational -- based upon his calculus -- which I think applies more accurately to a broader cultural theme. As matters of life and death go, the nag we end up calling Horse of the Year hardly qualifies as political game changer, and we can probably spend our rational moments solving greater problems. Let's hear it for the irrational, as long as it does no harm.

In an attempt at fairness, there will be no campaigning from me. My conflict of interest begins at home since my daughter, a rabid Zenyattista, got her photo snapped feeding a handful of grass to the Big Mare after her victory in the Vanity Handicap, and the Mosses have put the image on a kid's T-shirt they are selling for charity. I'm told it's cute.

Still, it is fun trying to predict the outcome. Zenyatta received 99 votes last year in the face of Rachel Alexandra, a compelling Horse of the Year candidate, who ended up with 130 votes and the crown. Of Zenyatta's 99, there were a smattering of protest votes against the heavy-handed boosterism of Jess Jackson, Rachel's proud owner. But for the most part exit polls indicated that Zenyatta's votes were cast with a positive attitude -- not a "vote against" -- although by exit polls I mean my drunken button-holing of dignitaries at the cocktail party after the awards ceremony had ended, which was attended by relatively few actual Eclipse Award voters. I never said it was scientific.

As a result, Zenyatta goes into the 2010 Horse of the Year contest with a loyal voting bloc in place. There could be some erosion in Zenyatta's support based on the stark results of the 2010 Breeders'  Cup Classic, in which Blame beat her by a head. At the same time, Blame enters consideration this year at the same angle Zenyatta entered last year's Eclipse contest -- he needed to win the race to be considered at all, just as Zenyatta's support for 2009 Horse of the Year went from pretty much zero to 99 between the quarter pole and the finish of the '09 Breeder's Cup Classic. 

Any championship, if it is to be taken seriously, should be based on a hard, testing grind, not a single gunfight. But the Breeders' Cup, for all its carnival excitement, has served to hopelessly change the rules by which both rational and irrational minds once came to choose the Horse of the Year. The idea that one race meant everything was scorned, unless it was a race like, say, the 1957 Trenton Handicap, pitting Bold Ruler, Round Table and Gallant Man, or the 1967 Woodward, which assembled Damascus, Buckpasser and Dr. Fager. In one mix or another, those horses had met before and proved their relative worth, requiring a final race of resolution.

By contrast, in 27 runnings the Breeders' Cup Classic has provided such a resolution of ongoing conflict only twice -- in 2007 when the season-long dramatics of Curlin, Street Sense, Hard Spun and Any Given Saturday came to a head in the slop of Monmouth, and in 1989, when Sunday Silence and Easy Goer brought their personal feud to an end at Gulfstream Park.

As for this year's contenders, I know this sounds weird, but there is a possibility some people might be getting their 4-year-old male horses confused. You remember Quality Road, the second coming of Bucephalus, based largely upon his total domination of Dry Martini and Delightful Kiss in the Donn Handicap last February, in which he recorded a Bernie Madoff Speed Figure of 2,309,119.6, adjusted for haze. At that point, Horse of the Year was his to lose. Neither Rachel Alexandra nor Zenyatta had poked their noses out of the girls' side of the club house yet and Blame was still recovering from Mardi Gras. Never mind that it took Quality Road 114 days to recover enough from the Donn to run again. He was still the uncrowned Horse of the Year. Then Blame came along and beat him in the Whitney (getting five pounds, by the way), and the QR crowd jumped ship, poor guy.

If Blame and Quality Road were the same horse they would have a 2010 that looked more like the champion mature males of old -- warriors like Tom Fool, Dr. Fager, Ack Ack, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Criminal Type, Cigar and, more recently, Mineshaft. Between them Blame-Road campaigned from Jan. 3 to Nov. 6, winning the Donn, the Met Mile, the Foster, the Whitney, the Woodward and the Breeders' Cup Classic, a rocking good record, the likes we'll probably never see again until the next great gelding appears.

Good luck then, to the 247, and to them I will offer only this admittedly prejudiced observation, having witnessed at fortunate close hand the phenomenon of Zenyatta these past three years with a mix of wonder and frustration -- wonder at what she achieve and frustration that she was not asked to do more. Space travel, for instance. Or Dancing With the Stars:

Horse of the Year may be too small a recognition for her impact, both on track and off, in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Unfortunately, there is no other award out there, and please do not cite the delayed gratification of the Hall of Fame. This may be one of those rare cases when, if it goes Zenyatta's way, the horse makes the award look good, instead of the other way around.