03/12/2015 12:40PM

Crist: A comeback for clashes of the titans

Shigeki Kikkawa
The meeting between Shared Belief (right) and California Chrome (left) in the San Antonio Stakes could be historic should Shared Belief win Horse of the Year.

When Shared Belief and California Chrome met in the San Antonio Stakes last month, the race seemed like a passing of the torch: Shared Belief won so easily that he became the front-runner for the Horse of the Year title that California Chrome won last year.

Shared Belief then burnished his status with a runaway romp in the Santa Anita Handicap last weekend, after which he received all 47 first-place votes in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s weekly media poll. According to Joan Lawrence of Thoroughbred Racing Communications, it was the first time there had been unanimity in the voting since Ghostzapper received all 16 votes in the poll taken on Halloween of 2004.

If the San Antonio turns out to have been a meeting between a past and future Horse of the Year, it will be the first in more than a decade. Meetings between Horses of the Year are rare, and more so now than ever.

Recent HOTY titlists including Curlin (who won in 2007 and 2008), Rachel Alexandra (2009), Zenyatta (2010), Havre de Grace (2011), and Wise Dan (2012-2013) never raced against a past or future Horse of the Year. The last time that happened was in the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Classic, when Ghostzapper (2004) won and Azeri (2002) finished 5th in her final career start. Ghostzapper beat a future Horse the Year one start earlier, when he edged Saint Liam (2005) by a neck in the 2004 Woodward.

Those were the only two showdowns between Horses of the Year in the last 19 years. The ones before that comprise a rich tapestry of racing history:

In the 1996 Jockey Club Gold Cup, Skip Away (who would win his HOTY title two years later in 1998) beat 1-5 Cigar (1995-1996) by a head.

In the 1995 Donn Handicap, Cigar was a 5 1/2-length winner while Holy Bull was injured and eased in his final career start.

Criminal Type accomplished the previous two such victories in the space of a month en route to his 1990 Horse of the Year title. First, in the Metropolitan Handicap, he beat champions Housebuster and Easy Goer, with 1991 Horse of the Year Black Tie Affair 6th (at 132-1!) Twenty-seven days later, Criminal Type beat 1989 Horse of the Year Sunday Silence by a head in the Hollywood Gold Cup.

The previous four Horse of the Year matchups were all between Ferdinand (1987) and Alysheba (1988). Ferdinand won the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic by a nose, but Alysheba bested him the three other times, all in 1988. They ran 1-2 in the San Bernardino and Santa Anita Handicap, and ran second and third in the Hollywood Gold Cup. Extra credit if you remember that it was Cutlass Reality who beat them both that day.

In all these cases, one horse had already won his title while the other would do so in the future. It appears that the only time, at least since 1972, that two already-titled Horses of the Year met was the 1984 Turf Classic at Belmont, won by John Henry (1981, 1984) with All Along (1983) running 4th. Those two also met on foreign soil, in the 1982 Japan Cup, when All Along ran second (to Half Iced), with John Henry 13th.

The only other Horse of the Year meetings since the Eclipse Award era began in 1971 were a quartet of clashes among the five great horses who accounted for all nine Horse of the Year titles from 1972 through 1980: Affirmed (1978-1979) held off Spectacular Bid (1980) in the 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup; Seattle Slew (1977) finished in front of Affirmed winning the 1978 Marlboro Cup and while finishing second to Exceller in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup; and in the only such showdown in a race for 3-year-olds, Secretariat (1972-1973) won the 1973 Kentucky Derby with Forego (1974-1975-1976) running fourth.

Whether or not the San Antonio turns out to have been a torch-passing race from one Horse of the Year to another, especially greedy students of history can hope for something even more rare: Let’s not forget that Wise Dan is still in training, and there’s a small chance he could end up in a Breeders’ Cup Classic with Shared Belief and California Chrome. That could end up being the first race three Horse of the Year titlists since the 1967 Woodward, when Damascus (1967) scored by 10 lengths over Buckpasser (1966), with Dr. Fager (1968) third.