12/19/2014 9:04AM

Beyer: No doubt about Horse of the Year

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Voting has begun to determine 2014’s Eclipse Award winners, and it has provoked sharp differences of opinion. Some of the choices – such as leading trainer and best older horse – require special thought and analysis, but Thoroughbred racing’s top honor, the Horse of the Year title, shouldn’t be as controversial as most people see it.

When four outstanding 3-year-olds faced the best available older horses Nov. 1 at Santa Anita, the confrontation epitomized what the Breeders’ Cup Classic was created to do: crown a champion based on head-to-head competition. Yet after Bayern led all the way to win America’s richest race, beating the undefeated favorite Shared Belief and the Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome, many voters have been looking for a different Horse of the Year.

The running of the race provoked controversy because Bayern bumped Shared Belief coming out of the gate, and a chain reaction hindered a speed horse who might have prevented Bayern from seizing the early lead. Fans and journalists protested that the stewards’ non-disqualification was an outrage. Experienced race-goers should know better. While stewards often can be maddeningly inconsistent, they are consistent from coast to coast in this one situation: Horses almost never are disqualified for an infraction in the first stride. Bayern did not win because of some injustice or because of a bias in the California racing establishment favoring his trainer, Bob Baffert.

Yes, the circumstances of the race helped Bayern – the Santa Anita track favored front-runners, and the bumping incident probably helped him get an uncontested lead – but none of Bayern’s rivals would have won the race in any case. California Chrome had a perfect trip, but couldn’t get past either Bayern or the longshot Toast of New York in the stretch run. Considering Bayern had trounced California Chrome in the Pennsylvania Derby a month earlier, arguments on behalf of the popular Kentucky Derby winner don’t stand up.

Instead, the anti-Bayern voters have coalesced around turf specialist Main Sequence, who took the No. 1 spot in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s year-end poll. The horse won all four of his starts, all on the grass, scoring three photo-finish victories in Grade 1 company against unexceptional domestic grass competition before defeating good international rivals in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. He is a worthy 2014 turf champion, but he’s no superstar – he had lost 10 straight races in Europe before coming to the U.S. this year – and his four-race campaign was not Horse of the Year material.

Bayern had the sort of campaign that racing fans should want from would-be champions. He raced 10 times from January through November and delivered some overpowering performances – winning the Haskell Invitational by more than seven lengths and the Pennsylvania Derby by nearly six before his Classic triumph.  His 7 1/2-length runaway in the seven-furlong Woody Stephens Stakes suggested he could have established himself as the nation’s best sprinter if he had pursued that goal. In any event, a horse who excels from seven furlongs to 1 1/4 miles is a rare commodity – and a deserving Horse of the Year.

Main Sequence also figures in the competition for the Eclipse Award that goes to the outstanding older male – a category that underscores a flaw in the Eclipse Awards that its organizers should change.

This title traditionally honored America’s best horse on the dirt because that was the surface on which U.S. championships were decided. As grass racing became more prevalent, an award for the best turf horse was sensibly added to the year-end honors. From the inception of the Eclipse Awards in 1971 through 2008, the title for best older male always went to a dirt horse. But by 2009, voters evidently had forgotten this tradition, and in four of the last five years they honored a turf specialist as the best older male. They’ll probably do the same in 2014, voting for Main Sequence over the best dirt runner, Palace Malice, whose season was shortened by an injury but who nevertheless won 4 of 5 starts in fast times.

Considering the primacy of dirt racing in the U.S., the industry should not ignore dirt horses while giving a turf specialist such as Main Sequence a redundant honor. The Eclipse Awards should be redefined as going to the outstanding older dirt horse and older turf horse (with categories for both males and females). Even without this change, Palace Malice gets my vote.

Many Eclipse Award voters look at the lists of top money-winning trainers and jockeys and vote for whoever is No. 1 as their default selection. In the case of trainers, this is often tantamount to an award to whoever has the biggest, strongest stable. That means Todd Pletcher, who has won six Eclipse Awards in the last decade.

Pletcher’s purse winnings are far ahead of his rivals’ in 2014, but this was not a great year for him – and he’d probably acknowledge that fact. With his army of promising 3-year-olds, he nominated 41 horses to the Kentucky Derby (1/10th of the whole nomination list), but he had a terrible attrition rate through the year. He didn’t have a leading contender in the Derby – his entrants finished third, 10th, 12th, and 17th – and not a single one of his 3-year-olds made it to any of the Breeders’ Cup races. His only five starters in the Cup were 2-year-olds – all losers.

This is the year to honor a trainer who excelled without such huge resources. Art Sherman had one potentially good horse in his stable. He developed the ill-bred California Chrome to win two-thirds of the Triple Crown, managing the colt flawlessly and maintaining his own poise amid the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the 3-year-old classics. Running in all three races takes a toll on most horses, but Sherman nevertheless got California Chrome ready to run the best race of his life in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The effort wasn’t quite good enough to earn California Chrome a year-end championship, but nobody in America trained a single horse more skillfully than Sherman, and he deserves the Eclipse Award.