11/07/2011 1:13PM

No clear-cut Horse of the Year favorite after Breeders' Cup

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Barbara D. Livingston
Drosselmeyer's upset win in the Breeders' Cup Classic has muddled the Horse of the Year picture.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The Breeders’ Cup was designed to determine champions, but this year’s event here at Churchill Downs was so punctuated by unexpected results that a number of year-end honors will remain in doubt right up until the time envelopes are opened at the Eclipse Awards dinner in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Jan. 16, first and foremost being Horse of the Year.

Game On Dude, Havre de Grace, Flat Out, or Stay Thirsty all could have put a hammerlock on Horse of the Year had they won the Classic on Saturday, but the 14-1 upset by Drosselmeyer – who earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 104, the slowest Classic in the 28-year history of the event – left that category unsettled and could lead to support for horses like Acclamation, Cape Blanco, and Tizway, all of whom missed the event.

It seems assured that more than a half-dozen horses will receive votes for Horse of the Year, and the winner may have just 25 percent to 30 percent of the vote. Let the electioneering begin.

“I think we’re still in it,” said Larry Jones, trainer of Havre de Grace. “At the Eclipse Awards, we’ll all still be biting our nails. I still feel we’re the front-runner.”

If Havre de Grace does win, she will follow Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, marking the first time females have won Horse of the Year three consecutive years.

“I just hope people don’t go, oh, Rachel Alexandra won and Zenyatta, so this is getting to be old hat,” Jones said. “She had a good body of work all year.”

Although Havre de Grace finished fourth in the Classic, behind Drosselmeyer, Game On Dude, and Ruler On Ice, she did defeat males once earlier this year, in the Woodward Stakes. Regardless, she is a cinch to be named champion older filly or mare.

Breeders' Cup Beyer Speed Figures

RACE WINNER BEYER PAR BEYER
Classic Drosselmeyer 116.65 104
Mile Court Vision 110.61 105
Juvenile Hansen 99 94
Turf St Nicholas Abbey 111.61 108
Dirt Mile Caleb's Posse 106 111
Turf Sprint Regally Ready 102 102
Sprint Amazombie 113.22 107
Juvenile Turf Wrote 87.25 86
Marathon Afleet Again 97.67 95
Ladies' Classic Royal Delta 107.48 104
Filly and Mare Turf Perfect Shirl 106.25 99
Juvenile Fillies My Miss Aurelia 99.30 86
Filly and Mare Sprint Musical Romance 103 98
Juvenile Fillies Turf Stephanie's Kitten 86.67 87
Juvenile Sprint Secret Circle N/A 95

Like Horse of the Year, champion older male is a nail-biter. The leading candidates are Acclamation, Flat Out, Game On Dude, and Tizway. Game On Dude put away all his pace rivals in the Classic, but could not hold off Drosselmeyer.

“He ran so good,” said Game On Dude’s trainer, Bob Baffert said. “That track was so demanding. I’ve never seen it like that here before. Those horses had to work so hard.”

Flat Out could try to enhance his résumé by coming back at the end of the month in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs, trainer Scooter Dickey said.

Equally wide open is 3-year-old male, a division that saw three different winners of Triple Crown races in the spring. Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, Preakness winner Shackleford, and Belmont winner Ruler On Ice all will receive significant support as will Travers winner Stay Thirsty. But a strong late-season bid was made by Caleb’s Posse, who won the Dirt Mile, in the process defeating Shackleford, and, perhaps most significantly, winning a Grade 1 dirt race against older males, something not achieved by the other leading candidates.

Uncle Mo, who was officially retired Monday, did not win a Grade 1 race this year and his 2011 résumé is simply too threadbare for him to be taken as a serious Eclipse Award candidate.

So while the Dirt Mile may have helped decide an Eclipse Award, other BC races like the Turf, Mile, and Filly and Mare Turf failed to clear up the two turf categories.

St. Nicholas Abbey was a mild upset winner of the Turf, and Court Vision pulled off a shocker in the Mile. Neither horse was on anyone’s short list of top Eclipse Award candidates before the Breeders’ Cup, and it is hard to envision either getting the divisional title off that one performance. Turallure, who lost a heartbreaker in the Mile, has a strong r é sum é , but the results Saturday bring horses like Acclamation and Cape Blanco into play.

The 27-1 upset win by Perfect Shirl in the Filly and Mare Turf on Friday night left the door ajar for Goldikova to secure the Eclipse Award by capturing the Mile for the fourth straight year, but she made a mess of the race, finishing third while being involved in a bumping match for which stewards surprisingly held her blameless. Stacelita, who ran poorly in the Filly and Mare Turf, might be the tepid leader, but the unsettled nature of this division makes the Matriarch Stakes at Hollywood Park on Nov. 25 a potential title bout, especially if a worthy candidate like the accomplished Never Retreat shows up.

The close result of the Juvenile could make picking the male 2-year-old champion achingly difficult. Hansen won the race, bravely holding off Union Rags to complete an unbeaten year, but there still will be support for Union Rags, who suffered the first loss of his career in a photo finish after a wide trip.

Champion female sprinter has several worthy candidates, including Musical Romance, who won the Filly and Mare Sprint and, unlike most of her primary rivals, lasted the year. But there is bound to be support for Hilda’s Passion and Sassy Image, both of whom won major races and at times were considered this division’s leader before going to the sidelines.

Several other divisions likely saw their champions crowned because Breeders’ Cup races. Two appear to be slam dunks, one a lay-up.

Amazombie won the Sprint against several leading candidates in that division, giving him his second Grade 1 victory at six furlongs. His only serious rival might now be Caleb’s Posse, whose Grade 1 wins came at seven furlongs and in a one-turn mile, so Amazombie has to be considered the favorite.

Royal Delta and My Miss Aurelia were emphatic winners of races that had the leading candidates for their divisions, so they should be close to unanimous choices.

Royal Delta’s victory in the Ladies’ Classic on Friday came at the expense of It’s Tricky and Plum Pretty, who were considered her primary rivals for champion 3-year-old filly.

My Miss Aurelia was an emphatic winner of the Juvenile Fillies, completing an unbeaten year and making her the overwhelming favorite to win the Eclipse Award in her division.

But her trainer, Steve Asmussen, is aiming higher.

“She gets my vote for Horse of the Year,” Asmussen said. “Horse of the Year is for great horses. She’s great.”