01/06/2011 2:07PM

How Horse of the Year voters play the game

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Yelling has been heard on most every corner in horse racing’s little village the last two years.

“How could Zenyatta not have been named Horse of the Year in 2009?” comes an angry shout from somewhere in the darkness of the World Wide Web.

“Championships are decided on the racetrack,” another voice sternly intones. “Blame cannot be denied Horse of the Year honors in 2010.”

And who’s that over in the back, their hand determinedly raised? “Horse of the Year to Goldikova, I tell you! That French filly ran the race of Breeders’ Cup Day. Three years in a row she beat the boys in the Mile.”

Go ahead, racing people – keep arguing. The arguing, in fact, is about the most solid substance we have when it comes to Horse of the Year. There is only one rule governing what constitutes a potential Horse of the Year − that the horse has started at least once in North America – and guidelines have never been more specific than that. Form an opinion and send in your ballot. That is all that is asked of the 250 voters who were polled to determine the 2010 Eclipse Award winners, including Horse of the Year.

Those voters come from four blocs: Daily Racing Form has 61 voters; National Turf Writers and Broadcasters has 132; and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, split into two groups, has 29 votes for Equibase chart-callers and 28 for racing secretaries. Eclipse ballots, submitted electronically, were due Jan. 4. Three finalists in each category were to be announced Jan. 6, and the winners will be announced at the annual awards dinner Jan. 17 in Miami Beach, Fla.

“There’s always a lot of excitement about a lot of awards, and people really do lose sense that it’s just a subjective decision,” said Chris Scherf, who has worked with the Thoroughbred Racing Associations since 1982. “It’s always going to be subjective, it’s not empirical, and it doesn’t diminish the achievements of a horse that’s not recognized.”

The TRA has been instrumental in Horse of the Year history. A Horse of the Year award has been bestowed in some form since the late 19th century, but it wasn’t until 1936 that Daily Racing Form began the process of choosing a Horse of the Year with a formal vote. In 1950, however, the TRA began administering its own version of the award, perhaps as a response to the 1949 Horse of the Year situation.

Other entities have conducted Horse of the Year surveys, including Turf and Sport Digest, which after polling a group of media members saw fit to name Coaltown as 1949’s Horse of the Year. Daily Racing Form had made a different choice, voting Coaltown’s rival, Capot, as the year’s top racehorse. Capot had finished second in the Kentucky Derby that year and went on to win the Preakness and the Belmont. Coaltown set or tied three world records during his 1949 campaign, but Capot beat him in the Sysonby Mile at Belmont, and late in the season he ran Coaltown into the ground winning the Pimlico Special by 12 lengths. Coaltown was part of the tony Calumet Farm operation, had a lot of speed, and had spent 1948 in the shadow of his stablemate Citation. Perhaps Turf and Sport voters had felt it would be a shame if such a wonderful horse was denied Horse of the Year two years in a row.

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But if the TRA Horse of the Year came about to provide a second more formal vote to inoculate the DRF poll against less rigorously administered Horse of the Year awards, the TRA on several occasions found itself at odds with the DRF. Four times the DRF and TRA voted for a different Horse of the Year, and the last of those occasions, 1970, spurred the Eclipse Awards system we know today.

Personality was champion 3-year-old of 1970 and wound up getting the TRA’s Horse of the Year trophy, whereas DRF went for turf champion Ft. Marcy as Horse of the Year. Scherf of the TRA said he believes, “Shuvee probably was the most accomplished horse that year,” but Shuvee didn’t do enough outside the filly division to earn Horse of the Year, and neither did brilliant 2-year-old Hoist the Flag galvanize sufficient support.

“It was those split champions that prompted J.B. Faulconer to initiate the movement that led to the Eclipse Awards,” said Bill Christine, a longtime turf writer who worked with Faulconer at the TRA from 1978 to 1982.

Eclipse Award voting, with Horse of the Year under its umbrella, began in 1971, with the National Thoroughbred Racing Association replacing the TRA as sponsor in 1998. Winners were determined through results in three voting blocs: Daily Racing Form, a panel of NTRA racing secretaries, and members of the National Turf Writers Association. Equibase chart callers joined the NTRA bloc in 1999. To win Horse of the Year, a horse had to carry two of the three voting blocs, a system akin to the presidential electoral college. When the three-bloc system was discarded late in 2003, DRF had 53 votes, the secretaries and chart callers 80, and the Turf Writers 161, which meant that a horse could win the popular vote and lose two blocs of voters.

Though the current system still divides voters into the same number of groups, it is a one-person, one-vote system. Voters are asked to make three choices in each Eclipse division, but that is only to determine three finalists. Only the first-place votes determine Eclipse winners.

Asked to define the Horse of the Year award, Keith Chamblin, NTRA senior vice president of communications and industry relations, got to the heart of the matter: “We really don’t have a definition. The award itself over time has represented excellence. How the voters define that is entirely up to the individual.”

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“There are no rules governing the voters, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Christine, who cast his first Horse of the Year vote in 1982. “It would be impossible to write rules that would be all-inclusive, and they would just muddle the process. It has been suggested that a point system determine champions, based on performance in graded races, but start with the basics: The graded-race system is deeply flawed.”

Steven Crist, Daily Racing Form’s editor, has voted for Horse of the Year since the early 1980s and sits on the Eclipse Award steering committee that meets several times a year to evaluate the awards system.

“There have never been any rules for it or guidelines,” Crist said. “If you look at the history of the thing, it’s usually the best horse in the open division, and the times people have gone elsewhere are because there was no standout horse in that division.”

Indeed, male dirt horses dominate Horse of the Year voting. And when a season lacks an older-male dirt horse, voters have as an automatic default the year’s 3-year-old champion. Charismatic was voted Horse of the Year in 1999 despite starting in claiming races early in the year and conducting a campaign that concluded with a career-ending injury in the Belmont Stakes.

“The way that year unfolded, nobody did any better than him,” said Bob Fortus, a longtime New Orleans Times-Picayune turf writer and a Horse of the Year voter since the late 1980s. “How good was Charismatic, really? But who else were you going to vote for? The worst years are the ones where there are no standouts. Did we get the right horse? Sometimes you feel like whoever you pick isn’t quite right.”

And when there’s no suitable star 3-year-old on which to fall back, almost anything can happen. In 1997, Favorite Trick became the first 2-year-old since Secretariat in 1972 to be named Horse of the Year. Suffice it to say Favorite Trick was no Secretariat. But 3-year-old champ Silver Charm, the Derby-Preakness winner, won only 3 of 7 starts that year, and older-male Eclipse winner Skip Away lost 7 times in 11 starts. “Skip Away was obviously the best horse in the country, but he had a terrible record,” Crist said.

The majority of voters apparently shared that perspective, which suggests Horse of the Year does carry with it a set of informal rules. Consistent winning obviously counts in the minds of many voters. Skip Away never was worse than third in 1997, but the fact he regularly was not the best horse on a given day thinned his backers. And while most voters think they know talent when they see it, that talent must be made manifest in more than one or two glorious blazes.

“That’s not written down anywhere, but it’s a perfectly fair summary of how people go about it,” Crist said. “It’s a combination of talent and accomplishment. Take the year after Ghostzapper won Horse of Year. He ran once [in 2005], he won the Met Mile, and it was one of the greatest performances I’d ever seen. But nobody wanted to make him Horse of the Year off that one start. There’s no rule, but there’s a common agreement that it would be absurd to make a Horse of the Year off that one race.”

But what about Europeans, like Goldikova, who make only one North American start a calendar year? Should voters attempt to view that performance without taking into account the bulk of the horse’s season, the part that took place overseas?

“I never vote for foreign horses if they’ve only made one start in the U.S.” said Neil Milbert, a longtime turf writer who still covers racing for the Chicago Tribune and who has voted for Horse of the Year since the early 1970s. “I feel like a horse should have more than one race here.”

It feels almost right not to consider overseas races when weighing Horse of the Year characteristics, but what about Dubai, where U.S.-based horses regularly race and prosper during the winter? Surely, Curlin’s overwhelming Dubai World Cup win helped propel him to Horse of the Year honors in 2008, though that race took place on a different continent.

Some voices clamor for the Breeders’ Cup to become the ultimate arbiter on all matters Eclipse, but there has never been a strong case for that. Skip Away, for instance, lost Horse of the Year after winning the 1997 BC Classic but won 1998’s Horse of the Year after finishing sixth in the Classic.

Here’s Christine’s breakdown of his process: “I don’t have any rules fixed in my head. I just look for the best horse. The Breeders’ Cup helps immensely, head-to-head is important to me, and quality of opposition, not necessarily graded races, means a lot. Winning over different tracks is also a consideration. I have no problem voting for European invaders with just one start and don’t believe there should be a rule that [prevents] this. In fact, there should be no rules. But unless it’s a Miesque or a Goldikova or a Ouija Board, I usually look to North American horses. But if there’s no standout among those, then I turn to the one-starters from abroad.”

Really, it’s not just horse racing awards that are amorphous, it’s best-of individual awards in all sports. You think Horse of the Year is a fraught venture? Just try making a list of Most Valuable Players in the National Football League. The Associated Press MVP is the gold standard in the NFL, but there have, at various times, been 10 year-end most-valuable awards associated with the league – including one named for a beer.

Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey league all use point systems to determine MVP that are far more complex than the one in use for Eclipse voting. NHL writers voting for the Hart Trophy are asked to submit a top-five list, with points awarded on a 10-7-5-3-1 scale. The NBA uses the same top-five points system, but MLB voters have to rank 10 players with point values assigned from 14 to 1. Under such a system, it would only take a couple of unscrupulous or ill-informed voters to sway an MVP election in a tight year.

It is also tricky to define what constitutes an MVP. Rules established in 1931 by the Baseball Writers Association of America still prevail: “(1) actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense; (2) number of games played; (3) general character, disposition, loyalty and effort; (4) former winners are eligible; and (5) members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.”

Is it possible for the MVP to be someone other than the best baseball player in a particular year? Apparently. Player X might have hit 71 home runs, but if his “general character” falls short, voters are to penalize him. Perhaps Eclipse Award voters should consult with Horse of the Year candidates’ grooms to review their off-track ethics.

“It is defined as the player who is judged most valuable to his team,” Helene Elliott, a Los Angeles Times columnist and hockey writer for more than 25 years, said of the NHL’s Hart award. “That’s basically it. From there you get into arguments about a player who might be dominant but on a losing team, and can/should he be MVP? There’s no reason he can’t, but that isn’t usually the case.

“I think best is something different from most valuable, and voters are understood to keep that in mind,” she said.

Peter Vecsey, an NBA columnist for the New York Post, has been voting for basketball MVP since the mid-1970s. Vecsey said that while “there are no criteria” for NBA MVP, “it’s clear in that MVP means most valuable. I’ve always interpreted that to mean most valuable regarding how well the players’ team does versus individual statistics. There are no guidelines. Voters aren’t asked for any explanation, just names.”

Since a horse does not play for a team, the most-valuable, best-player dichotomy doesn’t arise in Horse of the Year consideration. But the 2010 contest, which almost certainly will come down to Blame or Zenyatta, does have parallels to human-award voting – in popularity, for instance.

“You hope that popularity doesn’t come into play, but voters are human, so it’s probably impossible to eliminate factors such as popularity,” Elliott said. “I think that’s true in any sport. . . . Player X’s effect on the sport as a whole should not be taken into account. The award is supposed to go to the player judged most valuable to his team, not the prettiest face for marketing purposes.”

Also, a major plank in the case for Zenyatta holds that her position as an ambassador for racing in the land of mainstream consumption − she was featured on “Oprah” and “60 Minutes” − must be factored into the Horse of the Year equation. Vecsey, however, uses a different calculus in his MVP voting.

“I do not try to take into account the intangible effect a player might have on the league when voting,” he said. “In my mind, that should have no bearing on the process.”

The NBA is the only major league that allows fan participation in MVP balloting. That began in 2010, when an online vote produced a fan ballot, one of 123 submitted for a final tally. No doubt, Zenyatta’s legions of fans would jump at the chance to make a greater mark on the process than in comment sections of racing blogs. But that kind of voting is the province of all-star games, not year-end award votes. And in the typical December, there’s little heated Horse of the Year debate to be found in any quarter.

“Last year and this year have given people younger and newer to the game the idea that this is some agonizing process,” Crist said. “Four out of five years, it’s just obvious.”

And while Christine, a turf writer himself, may be slightly biased, he also probably hits close to the mark with his basic assessment of the Horse of the Year process.

“Most years,” he said, “voters got it right.”