12/19/2013 3:11PM

Andrew Beyer: Mucho Macho Man deserving of Horse of the Year title

Barbara D. Livingston
Mucho Macho Man ended his 2013 campaign with wins in the Breeders' Cup Classic and Awesome Again Stakes.

After Mucho Macho Man won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, most commentators declared that the turf specialist Wise Dan would earn his second Horse of the Year title. Mucho Macho Man didn’t have enough other accomplishments to take the honor, but by trouncing Game On Dude he had eliminated that gelding’s claim to the championship. The last horse standing was Wise Dan, winner of all six of his starts on grass.

As a voter for the Eclipse Awards, I take my ballot seriously, and I fretted for weeks over the choice until I saw the light. Mucho Macho Man should win the sport’s top honor. His credentials may be imperfect, but Wise Dan’s claims to the title are spurious.

Knowledgeable handicappers know that Wise Dan’s victories this year were unimpressive. People with an appreciation of racing history know that horses with his specialty should not be an American champion. And fans should not want to honor a horse whose owner and trainer ducked tough challenges all year.

Of course, many voters will decline to honor Mucho Macho Man after a year in which he made five starts and won only two races. The 5-year-old’s campaign was disrupted by a bacterial infection and a virus early in the year, and he didn’t hit top form until September, when he captured the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita by 4 1/4 lengths. He used that race as a springboard to win a photo finish in the Classic, where he defeated an all-star field that included eight Grade 1 stakes winners, four of them with earnings of $3 million.

His overall record was thin by the standards of the Horse of the Year, though Tiznow won in 2000 with a 5-for-9 record (including two Grade 1 wins) and Native Dancer was honored after winning a single stakes race in 1954. However, Eclipse Awards in various categories are annually bestowed on horses solely of the basis of a Breeders’ Cup victory. No voter will hesitate to make Groupie Doll the champion female sprinter despite her 2-for-5 record in 2013, because she won the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. One of her rivals in this category had a 6-for-6 record, but Groupie Doll will get the trophy because she beat the best in the definitive championship race. As did Mucho Macho Man.

Any case for Mucho Macho Man also must be a case against Wise Dan, and that case is rooted in history. America’s most important races are stakes on the dirt at longer distances – 1 1/8 miles and up. Those races almost always determine championships, despite the excellence of runners in other categories. Only four horses have earned the title after scoring all of their victories on turf in their championship season.

These turf stars, like almost all turf champions, made their reputation at long distances – usually at 1 1/2 miles. While running a mile on grass is an exalted specialty in England, the most talented horses on this continent aim for different objectives. Non-aficionados would be hard-pressed to name the important one-mile grass races in the United States except for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Finding the best U.S. racehorse in one-mile grass races would be like looking for the best American athlete in the ranks of, say, javelin throwers.

Nevertheless, in 2012 Wise Dan was a deserving Horse of the Year. He won the Breeders’ Cup Mile against a field that included two of Europe’s best milers, plus Animal Kingdom, the future winner of the $10 million Dubai World Cup. In addition to his turf exploits, he won a stakes on Keeneland’s synthetic track by 10 lengths and lost a photo in a Grade 1 dirt stakes at Churchill Downs against some of the country’s best. He was a triple threat capable of beating the top Euros at their own game.

But that was the Wise Dan of 2012. Owner Morton Fink and trainer Charles LoPresti could have asked their champion to undertake some historical challenges this year. Wise Dan could have raced on dirt against top competition. He might have gone to Royal Ascot and tried to beat the Europeans on their home turf. Instead, the owner and trainer opted for the path of least resistance.

Wise Dan mostly dominated small fields of overmatched rivals at one mile on grass and didn’t look as overpowering as he had in 2012. When one of his races was transferred from turf to a synthetic track because of rain, he lost it. His finale, the Breeders’ Cup Mile, drew a disappointing field – the best Europeans stayed at home – but Wise Dan had to work hard to beat Za Approval, a Grade 3 runner. While his 6-for-7 record looks good superficially, he never faced a difficult challenge or beat a top-class horse all year.

Eclipse Award voters properly don’t consider horses’ achievement in previous seasons when choosing the Horse of the Year. Wise Dan’s 2012 campaign doesn’t count, nor does Mucho Macho Man’s, though  he won three of six stakes against top-level competition and was unlucky to lose the Breeders’ Cup Classic by a half-length. But his prior record proves that his Classic victory this year was no fluke. Mucho Macho Man may not be the ideal Horse of the Year, but he is a worthy one.

© 2013 The Washington Post

Ralston Headley More than 1 year ago
I agree entirely,wise dan winning hoy was a travesty,if not a joke played on the North American racing enthusiasts.
Ralston Headley More than 1 year ago
A vote for Wise Dan is just sentimental .the best horse in north America (including Canada ) is mucho macho man or will take charge . Wise Dan is not even a worthy alternative.
Ian Phillips More than 1 year ago
u must be kidding, horse wins 2 races at the same track and he wins horse of year.wise dan went from kentucky new york canada california taking on all comers with four grade 1 wins. so what its on grass and at a mile. mmm races all were on dirt. will take charge all on dirt. let them face each other on both surfaces at a mile and sixteen to be fair and lets see who is champ. my money is with a real champion. wise dan by a pole.
Holybull More than 1 year ago
I fully Agree with you Mr. Beyer. Moreover, we all knew the MMM was a much better horse than what the beginning of this year indicated.
Thomas Koski More than 1 year ago
I reluctantly side with Andy here. Mucho Macho Man well short of HOY credentials in most years, but it should be his against this crew.
Anita Carter More than 1 year ago
I am sorry-But Mucho Macho Man didn't have a HOY winning year. His main wins were at one track-Santa Anita in the fall. Wise Dan ran at many tracks and as importantly carried weight. If Wise Dan is penelized for not running in dirt races then dirt horses need to run in turf races. I think the WD would run well/win in a dirt race. He ran more often and consistently than any other horse.
Holybull More than 1 year ago
Your point is a good one. Yet when we take this horse for everything we know he is then he becomes a deserving candidate. He did beat the best horses in training in the BC and he did it stylishly.
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
Why wasn't Fort Larned given horse of the year last year. Wise dan has same record as last year. Fort larned had a far better year then MMM did this year.
Wesley Wright More than 1 year ago
I agree with the writer's views on the HOY dilemma. WD and his connections appeared to take the easy route in 2013; no fault of their own. I would have loved to see WD race in at least one dirt race 9-10 furlongs. For HOY Wise Dan has the edge, but he is not a shoe in; I would not be surprised to see another horse snatch it from him.
thesouthwasright_99 More than 1 year ago
I like MMM ever since his 3 YO season, but HOY is Wise Dan ! He was setting tracks afire with new records. The other top horses would not race him. The other owners were chickens not sportsmen !
Tim Berry More than 1 year ago
I don't call running in five Grade I races and winning four of them ducking the competition