11/10/2011 12:05PM

Horse of the Year 2011: From showdown to letdown


After two straight seasons in which voters agonized and fans hotly debated which of two highly qualified candidates should be the Horse of the Year, there is uncertainty of an entirely different kind in 2011: settling on a deserving winner of the top Eclipse Award at the end of a racing year and a Breeders’ Cup marked by inconsistency and upsets.

Ten or more horses could end up receiving votes, many of them half-hearted ones, and about the only sure thing is that for the fourth straight year, the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic will not receive the sport’s top honor. Drosselmeyer’s upset victory last Saturday in a slowly run race in which only six lengths separated the 12 starters was only his second victory in seven starts this year, the other coming in a minor, ungraded stakes race at Belmont in July.

Drosselmeyer may not even be one of the three finalists for the older-male championship, a division in which multiple stakes winners Acclamation, Flat Out, Game On Dude, and Tizway all could have emerged as the favorite for Horse of the Year with a Classic victory. Instead, Game On Dude finished second, Flat Out ran fifth, and Acclamation and Tizway were sidelined with injuries in the weeks leading up to the race.

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Winning the Classic has never been a guarantee of Horse of the Year honors despite the Breeders’ Cup’s relentless attempts to position its races as “championships” and to redefine the word “champion” − which means an Eclipse Award recipient − to mean the winner of any Breeders’ Cup race. In fact, only 11 of the 27 Classic winners since the race was first run in 1984 were named Horse of the Year that same season. Two others, Skip Away and Zenyatta, won the award the year after they won the Classic and failed to repeat but had otherwise stellar campaigns.

The Horse of the Year title usually goes to either the clearly best older horse in the country or to a 3-year-old who wins more than one Triple Crown race. This year no one fits either of those bills. Animal Kingdom, Shackleford, and Ruler On Ice carved up the Crown and then neglected to win another race, going a combined 0 for 10 thereafter. All three could well end up losing the 3-year-old title to Caleb’s Posse, the only 3-year-old male to win two Grade 1 races so far this year, albeit the unusual duo of the King’s Bishop and the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

In the absence of a stellar 3-year-old or older male, voters have historically looked outside those two glamour divisions to find an unusually dominant filly (All Along, Lady’s Secret, Azeri, Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta), juvenile (Secretariat, Favorite Trick), or even a grass horse (Kotashaan). That may well be the case again this year: Havre de Grace, who could have sewn up the award with a Classic victory over males, lost some ground finishing fourth in the Classic but is probably still the favorite for the title.

Havre de Grace doesn’t measure up to those five fillies who have won the Horse of the Year Eclipse, all Hall of Famers or surefire first-ballot inductees, but she has several compelling factors in her favor: a 5 for 7 record, including three Grade 1 triumphs; victories over last year’s champion 3-year-old filly, Blind Luck, and this year’s certain 3-year-old champion, Royal Delta; and a victory against males, including Flat Out in the Woodward. Those accomplishments may tip the scales in her favor over the older male contenders, all of whom have their drawbacks.

Acclamation also went 5 for 7 and won three Grade 1’s, and some will argue that his three Grade 1’s carry more weight because they were all in unrestricted races; two of Havre de Grace’s three Grade 1’s were in races restricted to fillies. On the other hand, Acclamation’s Grade 1 wins came on grass or Polytrack courses. In his only dirt race, he finished 10th in the Charles Town Classic, a race in which Game On Dude and Tizway ran 2-3 behind Duke of Mischief in the slop.

Game On Dude may have run the most admirable race of anyone in the Classic, leading from the outset, turning back Uncle Mo in upper stretch, and spurting away before getting run down by Drosselmeyer. A Classic victory on top of his Grade 1 victories in the Santa Anita Handicap and Goodwood would have made him a clear choice. His defeat, however, left his 2011 tally at three wins and five losses, which would be the worst seasonal record by any Horse of the Year titlist. The last three winners – Curlin, Rachel Alexandra, and Zenyatta – combined to lose only three races and win 18 in their Horse of the Year seasons.

Tizway’s victories in the Met Mile and Whitney may have been stronger than Game On Dude’s in the Big Cap and Goodwood, but he made it to the races only four times this year and lost twice. He’ll receive some support for the older-male title, but for most voters his absence from the Classic probably rules him out as a Horse of the Year candidate. Flat Out won the Suburban and Jockey Club Gold Cup but lost his five other starts this year, including no-excuse seconds to Tizway in the Whitney and Havre de Grace in the Woodward.

What about looking further afield?

My Miss Aurelia, who won all four of her starts, including the Grade 1 Frizette and Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, should be a unanimous choice as 2-year-old filly champion, but she didn’t accomplish anything particularly special that suggests she should be the first of her age and sex to win a Horse of the Year award: Meadow Star, Flanders, Storm Flag Flying, and Indian Blessing all won the same two races without garnering any Horse of the Year support.

Cape Blanco, who along with Havre de Grace and Acclamation is the only three-time Grade 1 winner so far this year, is a likely winner of the male-turf Eclipse over Acclamation, but he faced few top runners in those races beyond the declining Gio Ponti.

Just a few moments after the Classic upset, amid the dawning realization that there was no clear Horse of the Year, message boards and chat rooms lit up with the same whimsical suggestion: If it’s such a mess, why not Rapid Redux, who is 17 for 17 in a year when so many struggled to win half their starts and took turns beating one another? Once you get past the charm and novelty of the notion, however, it is entirely inappropriate. Taking nothing away from his streak, all of those starts were victories in races restricted to horses who have run for low-level claiming prices. He did not run in a stakes races, much less a graded stakes race, and none of his 17 races were good or fast enough to have won such an event.

He’s an admirable horse with a spectacular record, and he deserves some sort of recognition or perhaps a special award at the Eclipse dinner. But voting for him out of frustration with much better horses would be akin to voting for a standout pitcher in double-A baseball for the Cy Young Award: He didn’t play in the Major Leagues.