01/19/2017 3:26PM

Hovdey: Horse of the Year vote often shows respect for elders

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The announcement of the 2016 Horse of the Year will cap the evening Saturday at Gulfstream Park when the Eclipse Awards are presented for the 46th time. If social-media chitchat and informal polls are right, then California Chrome, a 5-year-old last year, will top Arrogate for the honor, despite the fact that Arrogate, then 3, beat the older horse the only time they met in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. And, of course, polls are never wrong.

In splendid isolation, either candidate would be worthy. California Chrome’s march from America to Dubai and back again offered an inspiring 10-month panorama of a mature Thoroughbred in full, while Arrogate, who had yet to run a race by the time Chrome won the Dubai World Cup in late March, made up for lost time with spectacular wins in the Travers and Classic. It’s a tough choice, and it has happened before.

The unbeaten Native Dancer made his first appearance as a 3-year-old on April 18, 1953, winning the first division of the Gotham Stakes at the egg-shaped Jamaica race course in Queens.

One week later, the 4-year-old Tom Fool made his 1953 debut, winning an overnight handicap at Jamaica under 128 pounds. He went on to win nine more races, all major stakes, carrying weights as high as 136 pounds. Tom Fool’s presence rendered his last four starts non-wagering events.

As for Native Dancer, after the Gotham, he added seven stakes victories, including the Preakness, Belmont Stakes, and Travers. His only loss, by a head, came in the Kentucky Derby. But he never faced older horses and therefore never met Tom Fool, who was retired at the end of the year.

Verdict: The older Tom Fool’s 10 for 10 trumped Native Dancer’s 9 for 10 for Horse of the Year.

After running 21 times as a 2-year-old, Carry Back made his 3-year-old debut Feb. 1, 1961, finishing fourth in the Bahamas Stakes at Hialeah. By the end of May, he had won the Everglades, Flamingo, Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness.

Kelso, the 1960 Horse of the Year, did not begin his 4-year-old season until an allowance win at Aqueduct on May 20, 1961. While carrying an average of 132 pounds, Kelso went on to take the Metropolitan, Suburban, and Brooklyn – known as the Handicap Triple Crown – as well as the Whitney on Our Hope’s disqualification in a rare running at Belmont Park.

The second half of Carry Back’s 1961 campaign was highlighted by victories in the Jerome at Belmont and the Trenton Handicap against older horses at Garden State, and he could have made a good case for Horse of the Year in the Woodward. Instead, Carry Back finished a distant third to Kelso in what was their only meeting.

Verdict: Kelso over the young gun for Horse of the Year.

In 1979, Spectacular Bid began his 3-year-old march for trainer Bud Delp with seven straight stakes wins, climaxed by the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. However, by finishing third in the Belmont Stakes, he let the Triple Crown slip away, thereby squandering a chance to nail down Horse of the Year early.

After winning the 1978 Triple Crown and Horse of the Year, Affirmed picked up steam through a 1979 California swing that had begun slowly. By the time Spectacular Bid was taking a post-Belmont break, Affirmed had won the Strub, Santa Anita Handicap, Californian, and Hollywood Gold Cup, under 132 pounds.

Come autumn, all eyes were on New York. Spectacular Bid won the Marlboro Cup without Affirmed, and Affirmed took the Woodward without Spectacular Bid, which meant Horse of the Year came down to the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 18, 1979. Taunting Affirmed’s trainer, Laz Barrera, Delp proclaimed, “If Affirmed stays in his stall, I’m Horse of the Year.”

Affirmed left his stall to beat his younger rival by three-quarters of a length.

Verdict: Settled on the racetrack, Affirmed was again Horse of the Year.

The most recent Horse of the Year clash between generational superstars turned convention on its head, when the 2009 title came down to a 3-year-old filly and a 5-year-old mare, while the boys stood around and shuffled their feet.

In addition to winning the Kentucky Oaks by 20 1/2 lengths and the Mother Goose by 19 1/4, Rachel Alexandra defeated 3-year-old males in the Preakness and the Haskell Invitational and older horses in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga.

Zenyatta responded with typically dramatic victories in four major West Coast stakes, all of them designed to have her on tilt for the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park. By then, Rachel Alexandra’s season had ended, leaving the stage to Zenyatta. She responded by becoming the first female to win the Classic, running her record to 14 wins without a defeat.

Without the clarity of a racetrack encounter, the vote for Horse of the Year figured to be close, and it was.

Verdict: Rachel Alexandra 130 votes, Zenyatta 99.

Sometimes there is consolation. With the memory of his 1953 season still fresh, Native Dancer made three successful appearances in 1954 and was crowned Horse of the Year. Spectacular Bid was untouchable as a 4-year-old in 1980 and won Horse of the Year in a landslide. Both Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra came back for more in 2010, and this time, it was Zenyatta’s turn as Horse of the Year.

Which is a long way of saying to Arrogate’s supporters, “There’s always this year.”