11/09/2012 3:44PM

Crist: A Horse of the Year paradox? Not really

Tom Keyser
A case could be made that Little Mike (above) deserves the turf championship while Wise Dan deserves to be Horse of the Year.

Since the Eclipse Awards began in 1972, all 40 Horse of the Year honorees also have been named the champion of their divisions, from Secretariat (2-year-old champ of 1972) to Havre de Grace (champion older female in 2011). This at first seems entirely logical: How can you be the best of the best if you’re not the best of your own division? The second-ranked beagle can’t be Best in Show at Westminster.

This year, though, it may be just as logical to make an exception. If the ballots were due tomorrow instead of Jan. 3, I would heartily vote for Wise Dan as the Horse of the Year. I would also, however, vote for Little Mike, rather than Wise Dan, as champion turf male – and I would consider voting for Fort Larned, rather than Wise Dan, as champion older male.

Pitchforks down. Wise Dan is a very good and admirable horse, and the totality of his campaign makes him an easy choice for the sport’s top honor. His 5-for-6 record, a nose from perfection, and his outstanding performances on three types of racing surfaces give him a superior breadth of achievement when compared to the other leading candidates.

The question instead is whether he or Little Mike brings more to the table in the narrower category of achievement on the grass, and I think a strong case can be made that Little Mike deserves that nod.

Each of them won a trio of Grade 1 grass races at different tracks. Wise Dan took the $1 million Woodbine Mile at Woodbine, the $750,000 Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland, and the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita. Little Mike won the $500,000 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs, the $1 million Arlington Million, and the $3 million Breeders’ Cup Turf . Each completed an outstanding trifecta of important grass victories that would normally be enough to secure a grass championship.

If we must choose, however, I have to lean toward the range of distances involved. All three of Wise Dan’s Grade 1 victories came in one-mile races, while Little Mike’s came at 1 1/8 miles (Woodford Reserve Turf Classic), 1 1/4 miles (Arlington Million), and 1 1/2 miles (BC Turf.) This is not to say that longer is inherently better, but that the variety of distances makes Little Mike’s trio just a little more impressive.

It does not mean that Little Mike should be Horse of the Year. The other half of Wise Dan’s six-race campaign – a freakily fast victory over Polytrack in the Ben Ali, a nose defeat on the dirt in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster, and a runaway in the one-mile Grade 2 Fourstardave at Saratoga – tip the big scale in his favor. Little Mike’s four other 2012 starts consist of a victory in the statebred-restricted Sunshine Millions and three defeats. Wise Dan had the better overall campaign, while Little Mike won a slightly better trio of Grade 1 turf races. I see no logical contradiction in giving each of these geldings an Eclipse Award.

The champion older male discussion is thornier and hinges on whether you interpret it literally, meaning the best older male of any stripe or on any surface, or in the more traditional sense of the top older dirt male.

The Eclipse voters have usually leaned the latter way. In 1993, the last time a grass horse was named Horse of the Year, Kotashaan won that honor, but the dirt horse Bertrando was the champion older male. Similarly, in 1983 when All Along was the only turf female ever to win the Horse of the Year Eclipse, the dirt filly Ambassador of Luck was the champion older female.

On the other hand, twice in the last three years – Gio Ponti in 2009 and Acclamation in 2011 – the older-male title went to a horse who did not win on the dirt. This may have been largely because there was no standout dirt-based candidate. Fort Larned, however, presents a much stronger case than older-male runners-up Einstein and Kodiak Kowboy in 2009 or Game On Dude and Tizway last year. Fort Larned won four graded stakes, including the Grade 1 Whitney and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. It wasn’t a perfect or historic campaign, but it deserves some consideration.

It might seem like a weird Eclipse Awards ceremony if we get to Horse of the Year at the end of the evening and Wise Dan hasn’t won anything yet but then walks off with the top prize. That may, however, be both the fairest and most generous result.

GaryDougherty More than 1 year ago
Beyers don't make champions, the horse's body of work does.
BrandonLayer More than 1 year ago
With the 3 top beyers run on grass in 2012 Wise Dan is champion turf horse no doubt. Fort Larned, however, should be HoY due to his top beyers of 117, 110, 108, 108 and 108. That beats any other horse easily. Even Wise Dan whos 5 top beyers were 117, 109, 108, 107 and 105.
JoyJackson21 More than 1 year ago
I'll Have Another should win Horse of the Year honors. I've given my reasons before, they still stand. He won all of his races at CLASSIC lengths, which are the race lengths for which the majority of HOY winners in the past won their Eclipse Awards. He won three straight Grade 1 races, four straight graded stakes races this year in total. IHA won all of his races impressively, with a fabulous show of heart, tenacity and an iron will-to-win. Judging by the way the Belmont was ultimately run and played out, had he been totally healthy at the time, I'll Have Another most likely would have won the Triple Crown in June. IHA won the most coveted races in horse racing. He was not a specialist-only type of horse. He was not a miler-only. He was not a sprinter-only. He was not a grass-only horse. He was not a polytrack-only horse. He was not a dirt-only horse. He has won races both on polytrack and dirt, and he was a Classic-length race champion who won all of his races in impressive, dominant fashion. All attributes that are usually honored with Horse of the Year honors. For those who say that IHA only ran against three year olds, so did Point Given, and Point Given won the Horse of the Year Eclipse Award in 2001 as a 3 year old, running and winning only against three year olds that year. Not only that, Point Given ran a disappointing 5th in the Kentucky Derby in 2001 and was STILL named Horse of the Year. I'll Have Another has the honor of a very thrilling and competitive Ketucky Derby win in his list of accomplishments to recommend him. So, please stop saying I'll Have Another only ran against three year olds, trying to prove he's not worthy to win the HOY because of that reason. Past history/Point Given's HOY victory proves that reasoning is misguided in determining a HOY Eclipse Award victory. This year's crop of three year olds was considered by most across the racing journalism world to be the finest in many, many years. Those who wish to argue that point, I have dozens of links to articles that say just that to prove that point. Wise Dan is a fine horse. So is Little Mike. So is Royal Delta. So is Fort Larned. I personally like all of them, and have wagered on almost all of them and won money on them. I hope they all win Eclipse Awards this year, they deserve to do so. But to me and in my estimation, I'll Have Another deserves to win both the 2012 Three Year Old Eclipse Award and 2012 Horse of the Year Eclipse Award.
anonymous More than 1 year ago
IHA didn't win all his races in "dominant fashion". He won the SA and Preakness by less than a length. I agree his overall record in '12 WAS dominant in his generation. I agree the award should have nothing to do with age or ages raced against, I would even favor 3 yr. olds since they're in the hottest, most competitive races. But I think the people who vote this award are looking at racing the whole year, not just the first 5 months. That's the clincher, and I think you and everybody else knows that. I also think people don't like that the triple crown prospect IHA was withdrawn on the eve of the race and they want to move on from that crushing disappointment and its potentially lethal blow to high level racing. That was a tremendous disappointment to fans and you know it. It may not be fair to IHA's memory or it may be, since staying fit is a requirement in sports. I know you blame the NYRA, Belmont park regulations, the detention shed, the racing stewards, the stray horse, allegations against Doug O'Neill, Union Rags and moreover fans of UR, especially those residing in New York state, for IHA's injury. But to say that IHA would have won the Belmont given how it played out, is totally academic. You can't vote based on what might have happened and you know it. The race would have been different with IHA in it and in spite of all you can argue, including pedigree, he didn't demonstrate that he could win at 11/2 miles. The Preakness was close. Dullahan "would" have caught IHA in the KD if it was 11/2 miles or even 13/8 miles, on that day. I also doubt the journalists still think the '12 crop was the finest in many years, given how almost all of them were retired by the end of the summer. That also left a bad taste in racing which the racing community would probably want to distance themselves from, making it easier to choose an older horse for HOY. Alot of bad blood was created in the '12 racing season, for various reasons including over zealous and obnoxious NYT's reporters and a badly run NYRA, as well as the real or imagined racing violations of Doug O'Neill and Paul Reddam's quick greediness. But it'll pass when new betting and racing dates arrive. It's just that in looking back over the past year, the voting members will remember both the good and the bad and it might influence them even more in the direction they're already leaning.
BrandonLayer More than 1 year ago
Wise Dan should be Champion Turf horse. He has the 3 highest Beyers run on turf all year. Fort Larned should be Horse of the Year. His 5 top Beyers this year were 117, 110, 108, 108 and 108. Wise Dan's top 5 Beyers this year were 117, 109, 108, 107 and 105. Fort Larned was better.
David Voelker More than 1 year ago
How about Game on Dude.
Mark Whalen More than 1 year ago
Steve, I think you hit it right on the head. Your logical call rightly honors Little Mike and Fort Larned in their respective divisions but Wise Dan does get Horse of the Year. Breathtaking to see all three in person but most magnificent was Dan all but toying with his opposition, in under 1:32! What a way to cap off his year of big stakes wins on dirt, turf and synth. I have a feeling he would have taken the Classic, no problem, had they chosen that route.
Old timer More than 1 year ago
I'll Have Another is 3 year old champion without a doubt, but for those who keep saying that he should be HOY, recall the title "Horse of the YEAR"... it's not horse of the first 5 months of the year.
Curtis V Slewster More than 1 year ago
Say that a little louder Old Timer. Exactly. Horse of the YEAR. YEAR, being the definitive word.
JoyJackson21 More than 1 year ago
I respectfully disagree. It's important who wins the most prestigeous races of the year, regardless of when those races were run. I'll Have Another and Fort Larned won the most prestigeous races in terms of stature throughout the world this year in winning the Kentucky Derby, The Preakness Stakes and the Breeders' Cup Classic. And all of those races are at CLASSIC lengths and run on dirt, which are the kind of races that traditionally win the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year. And Point Given won Horse of the Year honors in 2001 as a 3 year old. He ran against and only beat three year olds in 2001, and still won HOY honors, thus destroying the theory that if you only beat three year olds you're not good enough to win HOY. In fact, Point Given came in a disappointing 5th in the Kentucky Derby in 2001 and STILL managed to win HOY. I'll Have Another won the Kentucky Derby and in impressive factor, a plus in IHA's column.
anonymous More than 1 year ago
I agree that the triple crown races are the most important, with the less established Breeder's Cup races being secondmost, and then other graded stakes. But an obvious shortcoming of IHA's record, which you refuse to acknowledge, is that he stopped racing against other horses in May. Racing through the year is a requirement, and would only be over-ruled if IHA had won the triple crown, in which case he'd be a shoe-in. But he didn't, even if he would have, he didn't. I can just as easily say IHA choked, big time, which he did. In addition, the bad blood created by both the NYRA and IHA's connections, for different reasons going back in time, and culminating in June, makes the voters want to move on to a horse who had nothing to do with all that.
[removed] More than 1 year ago
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mikey More than 1 year ago
No he is not the fastest....there are sprinters faster than Wise Dan.... as a matter of fact Black Caviar is faster than Frankel...
tony sayles More than 1 year ago
With all this conjecture it would appear that none of them are above average,Wise Dan may be the exception. Let's hope his connections are game enough to go for the Queen Anne. At least we should be able to enjoy him for a few more years.
Mitch McMahon More than 1 year ago
WIse Dan was the talk going to the BC. He crushed the field. Case closed.