01/06/2011 5:00PM

2010 Eclipse Awards: Quality Road

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Bob Coglianese

Horse of the Year for 2010 will come down to two horses, Blame and Zenyatta. Horse of the Half-Year? That was an easy call: Quality Road.
No horse in North America was nearly as dominant the first six months of 2010 as Quality Road. His 2 3/4-length win in the Grade 3 Hal’s Hope on Jan. 3 served merely as a palate teaser. One month later, he turned in what might have been the single most powerful victory of the season, a track-record-setting 12 3/4-length thrashing of eight overwhelmed rivals in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap.

The Donn came on Feb. 6, and Quality Road followed up that triumph by going into hibernation. But when trainer Todd Pletcher finally took the wraps off on May 31, Quality Road did nothing to diminish his growing reputation, shifting from the two-turn, nine-furlong Donn to the one-turn Met Mile, and winning that by 1 1/2 lengths over Musket Man.

Had Horse of the Year voting been conducted not in winter but early June – when Zenyatta and Blame still were getting warmed up – it would have been Quality Road in a landslide.

“I still feel like the Donn was the strongest performance of any horse in 2010,” Pletcher said.

The second half of Quality Road’s campaign, though, turned a different direction.

Quality Road went favored at odds of 1-2 in his first race after the Met Mile, the Grade 1 Whitney on Aug. 7 at Saratoga, but someone forgot to tell Blame that the Whitney was a coronation rather than a horse race. Quality Road had things his own way in the Whitney, setting a moderate pace while on the lead, but yielded to Blame yards before the finish, losing by a head.

Quality Road would rebound to win the Sept. 4 Woodward by almost five lengths, but no one was hailing this victory as epic, the way they had the Donn. Two months later, Quality Road’s career concluded in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on the only sour note the horse ever struck. Trapped down inside chasing a hot pace, Quality Road backed out of the race, finishing last of 12, basically eased under the wire, 30 lengths behind the Blame-Zenyatta fireworks.

“Any time you don’t end up meeting all your goals, you think what you could have done differently, and certainly, given the option, if we could have had him run his Donn race in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, that’s what we were hoping for,” Pletcher said.

But even though Quality Road started his season early for a horse whose goal was the Breeders’ Cup, he clearly was not over-raced.

“We knew he was ready early in the year, and knew he loved the Gulfstream surface,” Pletcher said. “We tried to freshen him from that point on. I can’t really say I would have done anything differently. For whatever reason, he just did not handle the surface on Breeders’ Cup Day.”

Quality Road handled almost everything else thrown at him, a considerable accomplishment considering that his 2009 season ended with a refusal to enter the starting gate for the BC Classic at Santa Anita. Quality Road pitched such a fit and delayed the start for so long that he eventually had to be scratched at the gate. What followed was a period of retraining, with Quality Road’s gate’s issues broken down and smoothed out through the rest of the autumn and over the winter. To the horse’s credit, he took to the teaching.

“We never had any issues at the gate this year,” said Pletcher. “He was perfect every time we ran him. He’s actually an extremely intelligent horse.”

Bred and owned by Edward Evans, Quality Road is a son of Elusive Quality out of the Strawberry Road mare Kobla. He won his career debut late in 2008 over 6 1/2 furlongs, and set a Saratoga track record at that distance in the 2009 Amsterdam Stakes. He won all three of his starts at one mile, and won 3 of 4 at 1 1/8 miles.

Said Pletcher, “I think what makes him so good, so unique, that he was able to do so many different things that well.”

Quality Road’s best qualities disappeared with the greatest number of eyes trained on him this year. But it doesn’t take perfect vision to see that he was one of the top horses of 2010.

PAST PERFORMANCES: Quality Road's 2010 season PPs (PDF)

KEY RACE REPLAY: Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park >>