06/03/2015 10:53AM

Gisser: Inside the Top Ten Poll

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Wiggle It Jiggleit sits atop the Hambletonian Society/ Breeders Crown Top Ten Poll.

When David Letterman left the airwaves on May 20, 2015 he took his iconic Top Ten List with him, but not before having some fun at his own expense. His list featured a star-studded lineup of celebrities and frequent guests for "Top Ten Things I Always Wanted to Say to Dave."  The highlight may have been “Seinfeld’s” Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who came in at #4 with, “Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale."

While a Top Ten list is easier to compile then a Top Ten Poll, the results can be surprisingly similar – sometimes meaningful, sometimes humorous, sometimes leaving you scratching your head. Every sport has at least one poll. Sometimes it’s a top ten, sometimes a top 25. The voters and criteria vary, but the media loves to pick it up and run it in the agate type. For a sport that is hurting for national media attention, the Hambletonian Society/ Breeders Crown Top Ten Poll gives harness racing a weekly spot in the media from Mid-May until late November, when the stakes season ends.

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While our sport’s poll, which has been around for about 25 years, is not perfect, it does provide a pretty good snapshot of the best horses in our sport, whether you want to take the list seriously or just use it for discussion fodder over an adult beverage. One thing is certain. It gets more accurate as the season progresses.

We (I have been privileged to vote in the poll for almost 20 years) are often hard-pressed to put together a first week list. With the poll starting in mid-May, there have been minimal stakes races contested and many top horses have only a few qualifiers under their belts. The poll requires a horse to have at least one North American start, and while I personally disagree with this rule (known by some wags as the Moni Maker rule), I do understand its purpose. Others may have just one or two starts and the 3-year-olds, at least the top ones, have little on their resumes.

The undefeated Wiggle It Jiggleit moved from number two to number one in the poll last week and solidified his spot this week, in week three, but some pundits feel the sophomore hasn’t beaten anybody and should be ranked third. In week one, I had Bee A Magician at #1, based on her impressive win in the Cutler where she beat the boys. It was a signature win. And while I did drop her to #2 behind Wiggle It Jiggleit after her loss to Father Patrick, I left her ahead of Father Patrick on the strength of the first win. A strong argument can be made the other way, I know. But the bottom line is we just don’t yet have enough information. A valid charge is made by my esteemed editor Derick Giwner, who says, “The poll simply starts too early. Voting should begin the first week of June so those casting ballots have at least a small base of stakes races to use as a barometer.”

There has also been some talk about the makeup of the 35-voter panel. All are writers of one sort or another. Some are racing beat writers, a highly-endangered species; some are race-track publicists; others write with more of a nod to the handicapping angle. So while we all write, we come from varied backgrounds and perspectives. There are no drivers or trainers involved and no USTA employees. It might be interesting to have a writer’s poll and a horsemen’s poll, akin to the USA Today NCAA Football Coaches Poll. It would be very interesting to see how closely the two matched. Our sport actually had competing polls for a while, back in the days of Times in Harness, which had its own “Expert’s Poll.” Unfortunately, nearly half the voters overlapped, so we did not get the varying opinions that you might expect.

Times have changed since the early 90s. Today it is much easier to vote than it was in the days of dial-up Internet connections. We have video replays available to us, so even if we are not at the track every night, we can still see the top races. We have Pathway and the USTA entries/results page, so if we do miss a race, we can see the charts. But sometimes, we still make mistakes. No poll voter is paid and sometimes real-life interferes with the poll. Don’t get me wrong, voting is an important responsibility. But if I am taking a weekend off and not accessing the web, what should I do? Vote early? Not vote at all? Ask for an extension? Buy a smart phone? And what happens if a voter does not vote?

Currently, a voter who misses a week has his previous week’s vote carried over. The thought is that this will cut down on the volatility of the poll and give it more credibility.  I am not sure that I like that policy. At one time, votes were prorated, so if only 28 of 35 voters voted, the votes that were cast were weighted at 1.25, giving each of them more influence.

In the old days of the faxed HRC weekly newsletter, which included the weekly poll each Monday, the names of the voters were listed. Now, to hear many fans and horsemen talk, you would think the voters are some mysterious coven controlling the poll with the click of a keyboard after a few mysterious incantations.  We’re not. We are just a group of volunteers trying to evaluate the best horses in the sport. We each have our own criteria and every once in a while, we do indeed go off the reservation, as I did last summer.

When Modern Family died at the end of the Maple Leaf Trot last year, I voted him #1 the following week. It was (in my mind) a fitting tribute to a gutsy horse who had hovered around the Top Ten all year. You can read the whole story here - http://www.drf.com/news/gisser-modern-family-no-1-my-book. Other voters have paid similar tributes over the years. The poll has no year-end award or prize, so nobody really gets penalized. The poll gives its voters a chance to make a statement or express their opinion.  And ultimately, that’s all the poll is. The opinions of 35 people, all relatively knowledgeable about the sport (some more than others), certainly, trying to get the sport just a bit more promotion and reach. And that should be something we can all agree on. 

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