01/13/2012 1:21PM

Hovdey: Season that laid the foundation for greatness

Justin N. Lane
My Miss Aurelia capped her perfect 4-for-4 season with a win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

From just about every angle it was a bloodless, dreary year. Three different colts won the three legs of the Triple Crown. The older horses were notable only for their inclination to share the wealth, while the leading mare managed to beat the boys in one of their biggest races. There was a turf horse who was clearly best at what he did, but it was, after all, on turf. As for the 2-year-olds, the top colt was exciting but had a hiccup in his final start, and the best filly won the right races from an otherwise modest crop.

It was an especially frustrating season, coming as it did in the wake of four consecutive years of intense drama, during which a parade of future Hall of Famers held forth on center stage, raising expectations and stirring emotions. The crash had to come, sooner or later, and when it did, it was a doozy.

Such were the sentiments abroad in the land as the Thoroughbred season drew to and end.

The 1970 season.

Yep, it’s been this way before, and in our lifetime, if by “our” I get to include anyone who was a dedicated racing fan during that golden age spanning 1966 through 1969, when Buckpasser, Damascus, Dr. Fager, Majestic Prince, and Arts and Letters elevated both the breed and the sport, just as Curlin, Rachel Alexandra, and Zenyatta captivated hearts and minds from 2007 through 2010.

Just as the letdown of 2011 bummed out the loyal followers of the game with a whac-a-mole array of horses who took turns in spotlight then ran for cover, the results of 1970 were similarly uninspiring.

Arts and Letters, the reigning Horse of the Year, was clearly not himself. He lost the Westchester, worked hard to win the Grey Lag, and then shipped West, where he pulled up lame after finishing sixth to Baffle in the Californian. A fine career was over.

The best older horse of 1969 was Nodouble, but he managed only two significant wins in 1970, including the Met Mile. Otherwise, it was a different horse winning the Santa Anita Handicap, Widener Handicap, Gulfstream Park Handicap, Brooklyn, Suburban, Hollywood Gold Cup, Governor Handicap, Hawthorne Gold Cup, and the two divisions of the John B. Campbell Handicap. Adding insult to insult, 3-year-olds won the Whitney and Woodward, while the 4-year-old filly Shuvee iced the flat cake by winning the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Hoist the Flag, the Union Rags of his day, won the Cowdin when the Cowdin counted, but was disqualified to last after winning a 16-horse Champagne Stakes by three. Tough love. Forward Gal won four filly stakes, including the Spinaway and the Frizette, but also lost six times in a 13-race campaign that looks like a whole career held next to My Miss Aurelia’s four polished starts.

And then there was Fort Marcy, racing’s grand old man, who was 6 in 1970 when he won five major grass stakes and lost three by a rotten nose. Neither Cape Blanco nor Acclamation, the turf stars of 2011, could hold a candle to Fort Marcy’s body of work. But neither do they boast a running line like the one recorded in Fort Marcy’s appearance at Aqueduct on March 18, 1970, in which he was second, beaten a nose when the comment line read: “view of race obscured by snow.”

Fort Marcy’s 13 races – 12 of which could be clearly seen – convinced many voting for Horse of the Year that he was the best choice of an unassuming lot. Others were inclined to back Personality, the Preakness winner, who also took the Wood Memorial, the Jersey Derby, the Jim Dandy, and the Woodward. Today, such a record would put him on a float in the Rose Parade, but Personality also lost 10 of his 18 starts, which gave some voters pause, since Horses of the Year customarily bat above .500.

The significance of the 1970 season is not that sometimes it’s tough to pick a champion, or that horses fully exposed their abilities running far more often waaaay back when. In fact, it was the restlessness caused by the scattered results of the 1970 season that inspired the leaders of horse racing to create the Eclipse Awards, thereby unifying the various year-end polls conducted by the Daily Racing Form , the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, and a variety of horse racing publications.

On Jan. 26, 1972, when the Eclipse Awards ceremony made its glamorous debut at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan, Academy Award winner Greer Garson gave the night all the glitz it needed in her acceptance of the Horse of the Year trophy for her 5-year-old fireball Ack Ack, a comprehensive winner of seven stakes in eight starts, four under 130 pounds or more, on turf and dirt, ranging from 5 1/2 furlongs to a 1 1/4 miles. Garson compared the moment favorably to her Oscar for “Mrs. Miniver.” It was that kind of night.

Among the other champions honored were Riva Ridge, Numbered Account, Turkish Trousers, Canonero II, Shuvee, Run the Gantlet, and Shadow Brook, along with a variety of Eclipse honors for Laffit Pincay, Paul Mellon, Charlie Whittingham, Charles Englehard, Robert Kleberg, and Gene St. Leon.

Now, with 40 years of Eclipse Awards in the books, another one of those nights will unfold Monday in Beverly Hills, when the champions of 2011 are crowned. It does no good to lament the void left by the last few years – happens all the time – or to worry over perceived miscarriages of voting justice. It’s a party. Folks get to dress funny. There will be winners, but in this bunch no real losers.

In the end, racing historians tended to forgive the 1970 season its considerable competitive faults. After all, without it there would have been no Eclipse Awards. Anyway, the North American foal crop of 1970 more than made up for whatever was lacking on the track. Among the little ones who hit the ground running that spring were Dahlia, Ancient Title, Allez France, Desert Vixen, Sham, La Prevoyante, Cafe Prince, Forego, and Secretariat.