09/21/2011 2:17PM

Horse of the Year title remains up for grabs

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Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Larry Jones and Havre de Grace will start their final push for Horse of the Year in next Saturday's Grade 1 Beldame at Belmont Park.

Let’s pretend for a moment that the idea of a Horse of the Year is important, truly important, and that the identity of the particular horse is revealed through a tortured set of priorities that combines both fact-based achievements and gut-level notions of history, fate, and romance. Where does that leave us now in the process for 2011?

Lost, mostly, heads spinning and wondering what’s next for a handful of candidates that have pushed a few but not all of the generally accepted buttons. After 8 1/2 months, you would think there would be some kind of resolution, some bubbling to the top of the most likely one or two special individuals with one or two more races to run and the trophy theirs to lose. But no, not this year. At least not yet.

A peek in the rear-view mirror for discernible patterns offers little comfort. Over the past decade, at this point on the calendar, horses like Ghostzapper, Saint Liam, Invasor, and the 3-year-old version of Curlin still had difficult work to do to reach the top, although no one was surprised when they got there.

As a 4-year-old of 2008, reigning champ Curlin got the benefit of the doubt but hardly needed it. By the end of August, he had it in the bag, with enough goodwill banked to offset a so-so win in the subsequent Jockey Club Gold Cup and a loss in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. In the same manner, Rachel Alexandra had 2009 Horse of the Year wrapped up by the end of the Saratoga meet after an historic campaign that withstood even Zenyatta’s late-season victory in the Classic.

On that score, it can be argued that Zenyatta had the 2010 Horse of the Year prize all but guaranteed the moment the envelope was opened to reveal she had lost the vote for 2009. It wasn’t quite as simple as that. She still had to show up. But for 10 solid months, right up to the moment she fell a head shy of catching Blame in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, any other Horse of the Year candidate was playing catch-up.

With no traditionally significant races on the docket, this final weekend in September provides a chance to take a deep breath and plunge into the final push for Horse of the Year. Fittingly, the four most seriously considered candidates will be in action next weekend, on Oct. 1, when Tizway and Stay Thirsty mix the generations in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Havre de Grace marches forth in the Beldame, and Blind Luck takes the field at Santa Anita for the Lady’s Secret.

Pity Stay Thirsty. All he’s done this year is win the Gotham, lose a close one in the Belmont Stakes, then sweep both the Jim Dandy and Travers at Saratoga with authority and the whole world watching. He could win the Gold Cup as well and still when he walks into the room everybody would look past him and ask about the other guy in the barn – the one named Uncle Mo – a media monster whose 2011 record can’t hold a candle to Stay Thirsty’s.

Tizway is for real, a classic late-bloomer, and the only East Coast guy who might be able to steal a little thunder from recent Woodward Stakes winner Havre de Grace. But only a little. Should they win the Gold Cup and the Beldame, their respective races will be endlessly scanned for clues to relative worth as a key to which has the Horse of the Year edge. Whatever happens, one more race will be required from each.

Then there is Blind Luck, in splendid California isolation. She could have shipped East for the Beldame – or the Gold Cup for that matter – but her trainer and part owner Jerry Hollendorfer demurred. In fact, by the time she returns to the races, Blind Luck will have skipped August and September altogether, her last appearance being the narrow win over Havre de Grace in the July 16 Delaware Handicap.

“I could have run once at Del Mar,“ Hollendorfer said. “But she wasn’t training particularly well over the surface down there, so I decided to give her a break. I think we can accomplish what we need to with the one prep race and go on to the Breeders’ Cup, if we run good enough in the Lady’s Secret.”

To that end, Blind Luck worked seven-eighths by herself in 1:26.20 at Hollywood Park on Wednesday morning.

“I would have given her a ‘breezing,’ ” Hollendorfer said while waiting to catch a plane back home to the Bay Area. “She did it nice and easy. She will work a little faster if she sees another horse in front of her, but she has been very consistent in her works, so we're pleased.”

Those craving another showdown between Havre de Grace and Blind Luck lie awake nights dreaming it might come in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Owner Rick Porter already has speculated Havre de Grace might head that direction, especially in the wake of her handy Woodward win. Hollendorfer, however, has other plans.

“I might get trumped by all three of my partners,” the trainer said, referring to Mark DeDomenico, John Carver, and Peter Abruzzo, “but I think we’ll be content going in the Ladies’ Classic.”

Blind Luck finished second to Unrivaled Belle in the 2010 Ladies’ Classic, with Havre de Grace third.

“If we could win that, we’d be thrilled,” Hollendorfer said. “We would have accomplished our mission for this year.”

Even if passing the Classic to run in the race for fillies and mares costs Blind Luck a shot at Horse of the Year?

“If I did the right thing for my horse, I’d say that nothing would make a difference,” Hollendorfer replied.