12/04/2014 2:33PM

Crist: Voters often change after Breeders' Cup hangover


On the day after this year’s Breeders’ Cup, 48 of the 240 or so Eclipse Award voters cast ballots in the NTRA’s final weekly Horse of the Year poll, and it looked like a two-horse race. Main Sequence got 20 votes to Bayern’s 13, a combined 68 percent of the vote, with California Chrome and Wise Dan dead-heating for a distant third with five votes each.

We seemed to be in for a lively debate about whether to honor the Breeders’ Cup Turf or the Breeders’ Cup Classic winner. There appeared to be little question that Bayern, having beaten California Chrome, Shared Belief, and Tonalist in the Classic, was going to be the champion 3-year-old.

Here we are just a little more than a month later, and those assumptions have been replaced by a new narrative in which California Chrome seems to have become the favorite for both the 3-year-old and Horse of the Year trophies. In the last week, at least five experienced turf writers with Eclipse votes have penned opinion columns in DRF and elsewhere saying that they are switching their allegiance from either Bayern or Main Sequence to California Chrome.

His victory in the Hollywood Derby last Saturday was hardly the highlight of California Chrome’s season, but it seems to have tipped the scales his way. The Hollywood Derby was far from a championship-caliber race but it put a different kind of cherry on top of California Chrome’s season. A victory in a (nominally) Grade 1 race in his grass debut gave California Chrome a little something extra, but more important it allowed people who were warm and fuzzy about him in the spring to embrace him again. They were having trouble justifying year-end accolades for a horse who had appeared to end his year with consecutive losses in the Belmont, Pennsylvania Derby, and Classic, but the Hollywood score took that curse off.

It is almost impossible to deny a Derby-Preakness winner the 3-year-old championship. It hasn’t happened since Arts and Letters and Majestic Prince back in 1969, and the 16 Derby-Preakness winners since then have all won the Eclipse. That is some powerful history, and perhaps we were too quick to think this was the year to break with tradition.

Every few years, someone proposes moving up Eclipse voting to the week after the Breeders’ Cup, saying that we should crown our champions right after our so-called championship races. This is a terrible idea, not only because there is possibly relevant Grade 1 racing through the last week of December, but because time for reflection allows the heated emotions of Breeders’ Cup Day to pass and encourages voters to look back dispassionately at an entire season instead of a day.

If California Chrome indeed prevails at the polls, it would be the third time in recent years that the Horse of the Year outcome is different from what it would have been a day after the Cup.

Zenyatta’s enormously popular victory in the 2009 Classic made her such a heavy early favorite for Horse of the Year that a Las Vegas sports book offered her at 2-5 for that honor the next day. The excitement died down, voters looked back at the entirety of Rachel Alexandra’s season, and ultimately gave her the award over Zenyatta.

A year later, things swung the other way. When Blame beat Zenyatta in the 2010 Classic, he appeared to have wrapped up the title. He had won the definitive showdown and amassed a better portfolio of victories in open races. By the night the envelope was opened, though, a majority of voters had convinced themselves that Zenyatta deserved the award as a sort of lifetime-achievement honor, not because she had a better year. It might not have been entirely logical, but it was an understandable triumph of sentimentality.

For the record, at the moment I’m still in Bayern’s corner for this year: I think he was the more brilliant horse, and he won two of his three face-offs with California Chrome including the one with the best field and the richest purse of the year. Even if you think Bayern should have come down, California Chrome ran well but had no excuses in defeat.

Since my ballot is not due until Jan. 3, however, I’ll continue mulling. As we’ve seen again this year, a month of reflection can make a world of difference.