01/14/2011 3:59PM

History challenge: Horse of the Year


For the third straight year, the announcement of the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year (Monday night in Miami Beach) is going to disappoint a large contingent. Blame and Zenyatta both sport credentials that would make him or her a worthy recipient of racing’s honor of best of the year.

For much of the long history of racing in America, the titles of champion and Horse of the Year were left to historians and trade publications, and they sometimes differed.

In 1936, two formal polls were adopted – one by Triangle Publications, representing the votes of the writers and editors of Daily Racing Form and its sister publication, The Morning Telegraph, and the other by Turf & Sport Digest, which polled the nation’s sportswriters and sportscasters. In 1950, the Thoroughbred Racing Associations (TRA) began polling racing secretaries.

Finally in 1971, the racing industry came together to develop the Eclipse Awards to consolidate voting and hold an annual ceremony to present the awards.

But polls will never avoid occasional controversy. Test your knowledge of some of the controversies of the past.

1. All 11 winners of the Triple Crown were either named or voted Horse of the Year in their 3-year-old season. But in at least one case, there was a powerful detractor.

Whirlaway, Triple Crown winner of 1941, was voted Horse of the Year in both 1941 and 1942, but Daily Racing Form’s John Hervey, one of the most prominent and respected racing writers and historians of the 20th century, felt Whirlaway was not the best horse in either year. Who did Hervey think should have been Horse of the Year in 1941 and 1942?

2. Citation, Triple Crown winner of 1948, was sidelined for all of 1949, but his stablemate Coaltown did more than an able job of filling in for him.

Coaltown won 12 of his first 13 starts of 1949, including the Widener, Gulfstream Park, Stars and Stripes, Arlington, and Washington Park handicaps. He carried 130 to 132 pounds eight times. He established a world record for one mile and equaled the world records for 1 1/8 and 1 1/4 miles.

The sportswriters and sportscasters voted Coaltown Horse of the Year for Turf & Sport Digest, but the more widely publicized Triangle Publications’ poll named another horse best of the year after Coaltown lost his final two starts. Name him.

3. Two 3-year-olds were absolutely dominant in 1954. Determine became the first gray to win the Kentucky Derby. He had earlier won the Santa Anita and Bay Meadows derbies. He finished the year with 10 wins in 15 starts and was the year’s top money earner.

High Gun started out slowly but came on strongly, winning the Peter Pan Handicap and Belmont Stakes in the spring and capturing the Sysonby Mile, Manhattan Handicap, and Jockey Club Gold Cup – all three against older horses – in the fall. He won six stakes.

But both Determine and High Gun lost Horse of the Year to this colt, who started only three times in 1954 and won only one stakes. Name him.

4. Naming a 2-year-old Horse of the Year is always going to raise some eyebrows. Only two horses have been so honored in the Eclipse era: Secretariat (1972) and Favorite Trick (1997).

But in 1983, a 2-year-old went undefeated and was so impressive that many thought he deserved to be Horse of the Year.
When the envelope was opened, however, he lost the title to a filly who had made only two starts in the United States and those were wins over yielding turf courses. Name the two horses.

5. Coaltown was not the only colt to appear to have Horse of the Year locked up, only to lose it in his final start of the year.

In 1984, this future Hall of Famer won all five of his starts impressively, including the Whitney and Woodward stakes, Marlboro Cup, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. But when he was defeated by a longshot in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Classic, it opened the door for another horse to nose him out in voting for Horse of the Year. Name the two horses.


1. “When he retired [for the season] from racing in 1942, Market Wise was as definitely the best horse in training as he was the year before,” John Hervey wrote.

“But, again,” Hervey added, “that made no impression on the experts.”

While Market Wise ran third to Whirlaway in the 1941 Kentucky Derby, he finished the year in a flourish, beating Whirlaway at equal weights in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, setting an American record for two miles (3:20.80) in the process.

Hervey pointed out that Whirlaway backed out of future meetings that year with Market Wise. Market Wise went on to win the Gallant Fox Handicap, Pimlico Special, and Bowie Handicap, while Whirlaway called it quits for the season.

In 1942, Market Wise’s season was cut short by injury, but in his one meeting with Whirlaway, he beat the Triple Crown champion by two lengths in the Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park.

Hervey attributed the ignoring of Market Wise to the huge sums won by Whirlaway – $272,386 in 1941 and $211,250 in 1942 – surpassing Seabiscuit as the world’s biggest money winner.

2. From February through September in 1949, Coaltown put on one of the greatest exhibitions by a Thoroughbred in racing history. Had he stopped there, he would have been everyone’s choice for Horse of the Year. But in his final two races of the year in October, he was off his game.

The 3-year-old Capot, who had finished second to Ponder in the Kentucky Derby but went on to win the Preakness, Belmont, and Jerome stakes and Leonard Richards Handicap, met older horses for the first time in the Sysonby Mile, where he stunned Coaltown, beating the favorite by 1 1/2 lengths.

Capot met Coaltown one more time in a match race, the Pimlico Special (which 11 years earlier had pitted Seabiscuit and War Admiral), and romped to a 12-length win. Coaltown turned up lame the next day. Capot’s win was enough to earn the majority of votes for Horse of the Year in the Triangle Publications’ poll.

3. In 1952, the Turf & Sport Digest and TRA polls voted undefeated 2-year-old Native Dancer Horse of the Year, while the Triangle Publications’ poll gave the honor to One Count.

The following year, Native Dancer won nine stakes in 10 starts – the Gotham, Wood Memorial, Withers, Preakness, Belmont, Dwyer, Arlington Classic, Travers, and American Derby.

But in that same year, the 4-year-old Tom Fool won 10 of 10 starts (nine stakes) and carried as much as 136 pounds. He was voted Horse of the Year in all polls.

In 1954, although Native Dancer started only three times – winning one allowance race, one overnight handicap, and the Metropolitan Mile – voters in all polls named him Horse of the Year – apparently for his lifetime achievement (21 wins in 22 starts).

4. In 1983, Devil’s Bag won all five of his juvenile starts by a combined 27 lengths, setting stakes records in the Cowdin and Champagne stakes.

But the honor of Horse of the Year went to the 4-year-old filly All Along, who lost her first three starts of the year in France and then won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, the Rothmans International at Woodbine, the Turf Classic at Aqueduct, and the Washington D.C. International at Laurel.

Some critics argued that two slow wins on yielding turf in America were not the credentials of a Horse of the Year.

The following year, Devil’s Bag was injured and retired days before the Kentucky Derby, while All Along came back to be beaten a neck in the first running of the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

5. John Henry won six stakes races at age 9 in 1984 – all on the grass. Injured late in the year, he did not make it to the inaugural Breeders’ Cup.

Nonetheless, John Henry edged Slew o’ Gold for the title of Horse of the Year – the second year in a row that the honor went to a horse who had won only on the turf.

John Henry also was Horse of the Year in 1981, when he won the Santa Anita Handicap and Jockey Club Gold Cup, both on the dirt.