01/16/2010 12:00AM

One winner, but two champions

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Just in case anyone was wondering, it has happened before. The drama of the Horse of the Year announcement, coming down to a pair of highly worthy candidates who never met on the field of battle, played out in the same Beverly Hills neighborhood a quarter of a century ago.

And while there was no live TVG coverage of the Eclipse Awards Dinner (which airs Monday at 7 p.m. Eastern), no live blogging from tuxedoed correspondents, and no Internet audience poised to pounce on the result, there were elements of East vs. West, Older Warrior vs. Young Gun, Dirt vs. Not Dirt, public relations vs. tradition.

Playing the part of Rachel Alexandra 25 years ago was Slew o' Gold, the superstar 4-year-old son of Seattle Slew who swept through the such hallowed events as the Whitney, Woodward, Marlboro Cup and Jockey Club Gold Cup before losing the inaugural running of the Breeders' Cup by the barest of margins on three good feet.

The Zenyatta role was ably filled by John Henry, whose 9-year-old campaign of 1984 featured six victories, all on grass, and a continuation of the folklore dating back to his Horse of the Year season of 1981.

It was a tossup, a pick 'em, with no wrong answer, but only one accepted. Those in attendance at the Century Plaza Hotel that evening of Feb. 8, 1985, vividly recall the tension in the room, the anticipation of the climactic announcement, and the odd sight of a tall, distinguished gentleman from Kentucky who for some reason could not negotiate the fairly simple mechanics of a sealed envelope.

"I can still see it," said Ted Bassett, former president of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, "fumbling with that envelope, while the orchestra leader glared at me, having to call for yet another drum roll while I tried in vain to get the thing opened. I was so humiliated by my ineptitude, I think I just slunk away into the night after that."

Bassett recovered well. When he finally was able to extract the name inside, instead of simply identifying the winner he looked up, paused for effect and intoned, "Like fine wine . . ." Everyone in the house knew exactly who that meant, and Bassett's subsequent "John Henry" was drowned in cheers.

"About a week later," Bassett recalled, "J.B. Faulconer, the executive director of the TRA, sent a memo to his staff: 'Henceforth and forevermore the Eclipse Award envelopes will not be sealed. Merely insert the flap.'"

The most recent beneficiary of that policy shift is Alex Waldrop, who in his role as current president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Associations gets to open the Horse of the Year envelope. Waldrop was asked if he was ready with a "like fine wine" kind of line for the moment of truth.

"I'm no Ted Bassett," Waldrop said. "He has a wonderful, dramatic flair. But that is an interesting thought. Really, though, I'm more concerned that I might see one name and read the other. That's about the only way I could screw it up."

The voting for Horse of the Year, along with the other 16 Eclipse Awards categories, was tabulated for the first time by the Louisville accounting firm Strothman & Co. Just for the record, there are no links on the Strothman website to either Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, Kendall-Jackson wine or A&M records.

"The results were checked a number of times," said William Meyer, one of the Strothman partners. "The results were downloaded into a spreadsheet, and we had several people within our organization independently come up with the same conclusions. Vote counting is not a difficult thing. You just should be careful that you get it right."

There will be a brief moment to reflect on the bright purity of what Meyer said. Sometimes the obvious needs to be stated.

"In fact, I independently verified all the winners, without knowing what the totals were supposed to be," Meyer added. "After that, the names were printed - nothing fancy - and the results were turned over to the NTRA. If they turn out to be different Monday night from the ones we came up with, I guess we'll have to call a press conference."

If the folks in charge of the process had listened to Ted Bassett, the ballots tallied by Strothman & Co. would have included an option to proclaim both Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta as 2009 Horses of the Year. The idea was briefly considered, then scrapped.

"I felt strongly that one of those fillies absolutely should not lose," said Bassett, who also served as president of the Breeders' Cup and head of Keeneland Association.

"They both have done so much for the bigger picture," Bassett went on, "especially when you remember 2008, with the death of Eight Belles, all the medication issues, and the criticism of what was seem as the inhumane attitude we had toward horses. Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta truly raised the level of the public's perception of racing.

"There were years in the past, before the Eclipse Awards, when the different racing organizations picked different horses for Horse of the Year, and the game survived," Bassett added. "But I've said my piece about that. A good friend reminded me that in 1941 Joe DiMaggio had his 56-game hitting streak, while Ted Williams batted .406, but there was only one American League MVP."

For the record, DiMaggio won the vote. And Ted Williams was still Ted Williams.