12/09/2010 5:59PM

Rationally speaking, Blame is Horse of the Year

DRF illustration

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Zenyatta has stirred passions and arguments this year that evoke memories of 1989, when Easy Goer and Sunday Silence polarized the racing community. The two colts' partisans hotly debated their respective merits throughout the year until their final showdown in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

When Sunday Silence held off Easy Goer's late charge and beat his archrival by a neck, the debate ended. Despite the closeness of the finish, almost nobody questioned the fact that Sunday Silence had earned the Horse of the Year title and secured his place in history.

Racing seasons don't regularly come to such a decisive climax, but 2010 did. Zenyatta brought her 19-race winning streak into the Classic against a field that included every colt with potential championship credentials. Jay Privman of Daily Racing Form wrote: "Should any of the accomplished . . . horses - like Blame, Haynesfield or Quality Road - win the Classic, his 2010 resume would make him a worthy choice as the best horse of this calendar year."

After Blame beat Zenyatta by a head, the performance did indeed make him worthy of the sport's top honor. His owner, Seth Hancock, assumed the title had been decided.

"Blame won it," he said at the postrace news conference. "I don't know who else you could vote for."

But Hancock underestimated the passion of Zenyatta's fans. Unfazed by her defeat, they have filled the blogosphere with arguments that she deserves the Horse of the Year title instead of Blame. With voting set to begin next week, the outcome is very much in doubt.

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Zenyatta's admirers cite her outstanding performances that spanned three racing seasons. They believe she deserves redress after losing the vote to Rachel Alexandra last year despite her perfect record and her victory in the Classic. And they maintain she deserves recognition because she was the sport's brightest star. Referring to the 72,000 people at Churchill Downs who cheered Zenyatta after her defeat, Joe Drape of The New York Times wrote, "My vote is with the people. Zenyatta is not only Horse of the Year. She's the Horse of a Lifetime." Drape cited the "60 Minutes" segment about Zenyatta and other media coverage and asked, "Other than everyday horseplayers, had anybody heard of Blame?"

There are no official criteria for the Eclipse Awards, but voters have always been guided by historical precedents and tacit standards. For example: Horses must excel at distances of a mile or more. Good form on dirt takes precedence over grass.

However, the aforementioned arguments for Zenyatta have no precedent. In 40 years of voting I cannot recall ever hearing horses' popularity or lifetime achievements mentioned as qualifications for year-end honors.

The Horse of the Year title is bestowed for performance in a given calendar year. Data sent to voters makes no reference to what any candidate did in previous years. The sport recognizes horses' exemplary careers through election to the Racing Hall of Fame.

Horses' starpower has not been a factor in the voting. In 2004 Smarty Jones was the nation's most recognized and popular horse as a result of his near-miss in the Triple Crown series. Ghostzapper was mostly known to racing aficionados, yet he was the superior racehorse, and he swamped Smarty Jones in the year-end balloting. Last year Rachel Alexandra was a star of the first magnitude; she performed before bigger live crowds and TV audiences than Zenyatta did this year. Yet nobody argued that she should be Horse of the Year because she "did so much for the sport" - a common refrain during the last month. Rachel Alexandra earned the title on her merits, and Zenyatta should have to do the same.

However, Zenyatta's fans cannot make an honest case that she had a better 2010 season than Blame, who raced against the country's best males, recording four wins and a second-place finish in five starts. Zenyatta scored all of her five victories against relatively weak filly-and-mare rivals - if Blame or the other leading males had run against such competition, the outcomes would have been routs. No female racehorse in history would have been considered a potential Horse of the Year on the basis of such a flimsy r sum . The Classic was Zenyatta's make-or-break test.

She made a gallant effort as she rallied from last place and barely failed to catch Blame. She won over many skeptics, myself included, who doubted her ability because she had never before raced against top competition on dirt. Nevertheless, she lost - a fact that eludes her admirers who believe an honorable defeat counts as a win. Ed Fountaine of the New York Post concluded his Horse of the Year argument for Zenyatta by writing, "She was hopelessly outdistanced in the race, yet lost by inches."

Zenyatta's fans imagine that their heroine overcame terrible adversity in the Classic and that the fact she was "hopelessly outdistanced . . . yet lost by inches" underscores her greatness. This is nonsense. She trailed the field because that is the way she always runs. For a horse rallying from last place in a 12-horse field, she enjoyed a relatively easy trip. She saved ground on the turn and avoided serious traffic trouble. She was abetted by the fast early pace that enervated the leaders. Blame got the jump on Zenyatta because he is a quicker, more versatile runner, and he was resolute enough to withstand her late charge. He earned the Horse of the Year title by beating his main rival in a head-to-head championship showdown, and the outpouring of specious arguments on Zenyatta's behalf cannot alter that fact.

(c) 2010, The Washington Post

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