01/13/2012 2:52PM

Crist: No drama in Horse of the Year vote

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Barbara D. Livingston
Havre de Grace seems poised to ride off with the 2011 Horse of the Year award at Monday night's Eclipse Awards.

After two years of genuine uncertainty, excitement, and controversy over who would be the Horse of the Year, the climactic announcement at Monday night’s Eclipse Awards ceremonies appears to be a foregone conclusion: Havre de Grace did not have as sparkling a season as Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta when they ran 1-2 at the polls in 2009, or as Zenyatta and Blame in 2010, but she appears to have no serious competition for the 2011 award.

Consider the results of a highly unscientific online straw poll conducted in recent weeks at DRF.com. Havre de Grace received twice as many votes as anyone else, and the horses who finished second and third behind her – the older males Rapid Redux and Drosselmeyer – are not even among the three finalists for the Eclipse as champion older male, a title that will go to either Acclamation, Game On Dude, or Tizway. If Rapid Redux and Drosselmeyer couldn’t garner 20 percent of the Eclipse vote within their own division for a lesser award, they obviously have no chance of getting a plurality of Horse of the Year votes.

[WATCH LIVE: 2011 Eclipse Awards - 8 p.m. Eastern on Monday, Jan. 16]

The older-male title is one of three equine divisional titles that will provide a dash of suspense amid the evening’s proceedings. The other two in question are the 3-year-old colt title, a toss-up between Animal Kingdom and Caleb’s Posse, and the female-sprinter award, where neither Hilda’s Passion, Musical Romance, nor Sassy Image would be a surprise.

There were enough bizarro-world results in the online straw-poll voting that it should probably be taken no more seriously as a predictive tool than, say, the Iowa caucus results: On Fire Baby finished second to the certain 2-year-old filly titleist My Miss Aurelia, outpolling the more-deserving finalists Grace Hall and Stephanie’s Kitten, and the completely unqualified R Betty Graybull ran third to Havre de Grace and Blind Luck in the older-filly voting. These choices can only be explained by full moons or repeated ballot-box enthusiasm by these horses’ connections and fan clubs.

Still, the fact that the only horses to get even a quarter as many votes as Havre de Grace for Horse of the Year are not even finalists for their own divisional titles is probably an accurate reflection of the lack of any credible challenger to Havre de Grace for the top award.

It’s no knock on Havre de Grace to say she wasn’t Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta – not many fillies in the last 50 years belong in the same breath as those two – and she’s a very good filly who won 5 of her 7 starts in 2011, including a solid victory against males in the Woodward. Yet it was her dull fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic that was more in line with the spirit of the 2011 racing season. Returning Eclipse champions such as Blind Luck, Gio Ponti, and Uncle Mo had their moments but all finished off the board in their final starts. The three winners of the Triple Crown races – Animal Kingdom, Shackleford, and Ruler on Ice – have yet to win a race since their classic victories.

The human categories are all a bit fuzzy, especially the one where there was a re-vote. The results of the initial polling for the apprentice-jockey award were discarded because voters had been given ambiguous statistical information about how many of the riders’ victories had been earned while they had the apprentice allowance as opposed to when they had become journeymen. So the correct stats were compiled and sent to voters early last week, and another vote was conducted.

This may be the last time that Eclipse voters have to worry about apprentice-riding stats, because there was already serious discussion about eliminating the award, and this incident illustrates why. The award has always been a poor fit with the rest of the program, rewarding a narrow achievement under murky circumstances: Some apprentices put up big stats riding on minor-league circuits, some are apprentices for just a few months of a given calendar while others get 12 months to roll up their numbers. It’s also probably fair to say that a majority of voters have never seen some of the leading contenders ride and have nothing on which to base a vote except for some sketchy and possibly unfair statistics.

In those rare years when an apprentice makes such an impact on the sport that his accomplishments rise to the level of Eclipse recognition, he or she could be considered for a special award, as Steve Cauthen was when he received an Award of Merit in 1977. Most of the time, however, it would be more appropriate for a leading apprentice to be recognized by his peers, perhaps through an award given by the Jockeys’ Guild, than with an Eclipse.