11/09/2012 3:44PM

Crist: A Horse of the Year paradox? Not really

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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.