12/05/2014 1:51PM

Hovdey: Two noble horses but only one Eclipse winner


It seems as if everyone with a digital platform and a key to the quarter pole has weighed in by now on the subject of 2014 Horse of the Year. Clearly, there is nothing left to say.

That said, there is always room to burst a few lingering bubbles, starting with this:

There are many worthy candidates for Horse of the Year.

This is coming from the Main Sequence corner of the room, and he is a fine animal, quite worthy of unseating Wise Dan as male turf champion. But really, people, do we want to reward an injury-free season of only four starts with the ultimate honor?

For the first time in a long time there were two comprehensively talented 3-year-olds with enviable records and year-long campaigns. One of them will be division champion and the division champion will be Horse of the Year. That much is not complicated.

Bayern gets the edge because he won two of the three races in which both he and California Chrome competed.

Life is beautiful when rendered with such simplicity – as long as you’re discussing Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. Not certain the rule can be applied with the same confidence this time around.

In the Preakness Stakes, Bayern did a stumbling stutter-step at the start and was squeezed between horses, then had to shift lanes to avoid heels. He made a game mini-run around the final turn but was finished at the quarter pole. Rosie Napravnik hit him three times then wrapped up to finish a meaningless 21 lengths behind California Chrome.

In the Pennsylvania Derby, Bayern was coming off his meek surrender in the Travers (in which he broke straight as a string), while California Chrome was racing for the first time since the Belmont Stakes, having required time to recover from the sliced foot he suffered in New York. Once again Bayern broke perfectly and walked his beat to win by nearly six. California Chrome was in tight early but dead short late and geared down at the end, beaten an official 7 1/4 lengths.

In the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Bayern did his slide dance at the start, hugged the inside, and took them all the way around, while California Chrome kept to the outside without a straw in his path. They were less than a yard apart at the end.

Bayern should not be held responsible for the decision of the stewards to take no action regarding his erratic break. But to give him a clear edge in head-to-head competition a voter would have to be either dogmatically literal (2 is always greater than 1) or interpret the chaotic Classic as conclusive evidence one colt is superior to the other. I am guessing you could fit the latter group in a phone booth.

The Hollywood Derby was a weak Grade 1 race and therefore did little to help the case for California Chrome.

Anyone thumping this drum needs a refresher course in just how messed up the graded race system is, and how its application has been perverted through the years.

To review, a race is designated Grade 1 because of the quality of the fields that have populated that race in past runnings. The grade describes the history of the race, not the depth of the field assembled for the running about to happen. The quality of the current field will go toward determing whether or not the race retains its Grade 1 rating for future runnings. The winner will always be a Grade 1 race winner and all that implies, even if the race suffers a subsequent downgrading based in part on the version he won.

I didn’t make the rules.

Anyway, let it be stipulated: both Bayern and California Chrome are Grade A, kick-ass colts.

Bayern won the Haskell, the Pennsylvania Derby, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He also won the Woody Stephens sprinting, finished first in the Derby Trial but was disqualified, and finished third in the Arkansas Derby.

Besides his close third in the Classic, California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Santa Anita Derby, and the Hollywood Derby on grass. He also won the San Felipe and ended up in a dead-heat for fourth in the Belmont Stakes, his third race in five weeks.

Finally, should Bayern be penalized for being a virtual no-show in the Triple Crown? Or, from another angle, is California Chrome’s Derby-Preakness double enough to outweigh his Classic loss to Bayern?

Let’s check historic precedent.

The last 3-year-old to win two legs of the Triple Crown and be denied the division championship was Riva Ridge, during Nixon’s first term (there was no known connection).

Since then, the list of horses who won two jewels and the division championship includes Little Current, Bold Forbes, Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Swale, Alysheba, Risen Star, Hansel, Thunder Gulch, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, Point Given, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Big Brown, and I’ll Have Another.

In the 31 years of the Breeders’ Cup era, Tiznow, in 2000, has been the only 3-year-old voted division champion with a win in the Classic but without a Triple Crown win (he did not compete). The other 3-year-old Breeders’ Cup Classic winners without a Triple Crown scalp were Proud Truth, Concern, Cat Thief, and Raven’s Pass.

In the end, those who vote for California Chrome have history on their side, which never hurts. Those who vote otherwise have discovered exceptional circumstances that are not readily apparent to this reporter. As for leaving Bayern without an Eclipse, I’d like to think that a Breeders’ Cup Classic trophy along with $4,389,680 in earnings can be its own reward.