11/16/2009 12:00AM

Horse of the Year vote requires firm decision


NEW YORK - Eclipse Award voters are not allowed to split their votes, which is pertinent when it comes to the raging debate over whether Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra should be Horse of the Year. This is a good thing. I feel splitting one's vote in any circumstance is wishy-washy. Make a decision. Choose a winner.

Then again, others view the prospect of a tie for Horse of the Year between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta as a just outcome because it would eliminate making one of these an undeserving loser. I believe a tie, even in this situation, would ultimately prove unsatisfying because it would never offer a true resolution. Years from now, when people ask who the best racehorse of 2009 was, how can we let it be said that there were two of them? One of them had to be better than the other. It's just not possible they were exactly the same in terms of ability or accomplishment. Besides, when people years from now talk about the history of horse racing, 2009 will be remembered as a special season when two great females dominated the sport, even if only one of them became Horse of the Year. So, choose a winner.

In this climate, and with discussion only beginning on a proposal to offer an option on the Eclipse Award ballot for Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra to be co-Horses of the Year - a proposal I am against, by the way - it's probably no surprise that most folks have already sworn their loyalty to one or the other. The funny thing is, I haven't yet. I will eventually, and I will vote for one Horse of the Year. But as I admitted in this space last week, right now, I am conflicted. I believe Rachel Alexandra had the best overall campaign, but Zenyatta won the best race in the Breeders' Cup Classic and beat a field in that event the likes of which Rachel Alexandra never faced.

Certainly, all the information needed to make a decision is already there. It's not like Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra is going to do anything else this year to affect the strong case each presents. It's just that I'm still crystallizing in my mind precisely what I want in a Horse of the Year. That is not to say that I have voted for Eclipse Awards all these years without having a sense of what Horse of the Year should be. Of course I have a sense of that. What I am saying is, because of the unique quandary Rachel Alexandra versus Zenyatta presents, I and every other person who votes for the Eclipse Awards has never had to be more certain of exactly what they want in a Horse of the Year.

Right here, it's a good idea to remind folks that there are no parameters when it comes to Eclipse Award voting. That is a good thing, too. While it is easy to quantify the number of Grade 1 wins a given horse has, assessing the quality of those wins is entirely subjective. People have countless reasons for voting the way they do in presidential elections, but Eclipse Award voting might be an even more individual process because there are no party lines to cloud the issue, unless you still wallow in the tired old East Coast versus West Coast ridiculousness. That said, there are three issues in the Zenyatta-Rachel Alexandra Horse of the Year battle I feel fellow Eclipse Award voters and those who like to play along at home should strongly consider before casting their real or imagined ballots:

* Rachel Alexandra should not be penalized for not competing in the Breeders' Cup.

Sure, it would have been nice if Rachel Alexandra was there. And yes, the Breeders' Cup is always a fantastic event no matter who is or isn't there. But just because the Breeders' Cup markets itself as a "World Championship" event, that doesn't make it so. It has never been a requirement that you had to run in the Breeders' Cup in order to win a championship, and here's hoping that it never becomes one. Still, the Breeders' Cup Classic is certainly a very influential race on Horse of the Year, probably the race of most impact. But much more than a Breeders' Cup win is required for Horse of the Year, evidenced by the fact that in the 25 years of the Cup before this one, only 11 Breeders' Cup Classic winners - less than half - went on in the same year to be voted Horse of the Year.

*Zenyatta should not be penalized for not racing on dirt or for not racing outside of California in 2009.

First of all, the dirt thing is a nonstarter because before the Breeders' Cup Classic, Zenyatta's best race was arguably the 2008 Apple Blossom on dirt. Let's also not forget that Zenyatta was in Kentucky to make her first start of 2009 on dirt at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Oaks Day in the Louisville Stakes, but was scratched when the track came up off. But taking that out of the equation, the fact that a Breeders' Cup in California was always the season-ending goal for the California-based Zenyatta meant it didn't make a lot of sense for her to leave her home base. It would be foolish to penalize Zenyatta for undertaking a sensible campaign, even if at times her campaign was frustratingly sensible.

* Rachel Alexandra should not be penalized in Horse of the Year voting because she is scheduled to race next year, while Zenyatta is retiring.

I know that there are folks out there who feel, "Let's give it to Zenyatta this year and Rachel will get it next year." Well, while there is every intention for Rachel Alexandra to race next year, anything can happen - literally a million things - that could derail those intentions. Horse of the Year voting is about what happened this year. It is too important to be used as a make-good for a horse who might have been slighted last year or reserved as a reward for what a horse might potentially accomplish next year.