02/24/2010 12:00AM

Shared award the right move

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ARCADIA, Calif. - There was a pretty good push a couple months back to pave the way for Horse of the Year 2009 to be shared somehow by Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. This effort was beaten back by stodgy traditionalists, who maintained that the Horse of the Year process had precedents that deserved no exceptions and that voters knew the job was dangerous when they took it. I confess to being one of those traditionalists, but I'll try not to be so stodgy.

And yet, there is a time and place for such compromise. Regional championships, like those handed down annually by the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association, fall squarely under the heading of, "Where's the harm?" Besides, the CTBA had a choice every bit as tough for its 2009 California horse of the year as the one faced by Eclipse voters. A tie didn't really feel all that bad.

Especially the way it did it. By the time the program got around to the California horse of the year announcement last Monday night at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, overlooking that incredible bay, Ken Kinakin's Dancing in Silks and Keith Card's California Flag had been roundly praised for their 2009 achievements, which included their unprecedented wins in both the Breeders' Cup Sprint and Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint.

They were joined as horse of the year finalists by Hollywood and Oak Tree Derby winner The Usual Q.T., who was named champion 3-year-old. And then emcee Frank Mirahmadi, the voice of the Northern California fairs, took over and poured forth a hilarious and downright exciting recreation of a mythical race call pitting the three, at 6 1/2 furlongs down the hillside turf at Santa Anita.

Hopping deftly from impressions of Michael Wrona, Harry Henson, Dave Johnson, and finally Trevor Denman, Mirahmadi somehow managed to make it a believable three-horse photo, with Dancing in Silks and California Flag finishing in a dead heat for the win. And so there were two horses of the year, both gelded sprinters. The crowd of about 200 loved it, and the earth did not open and swallow the Claremont.

It was a good idea to bring the event to Northern California for a change, if only as a show of support for the deep and abiding tradition of racing in that part of the state. Bay Area racing took a traumatic hit with the demolition of Bay Meadows in 2008. The pile of rubble remains, thanks to the Bay Meadows Land Co. (owners also of Hollywood Park), as does the impact of the Bay Meadows closing, which has put a desperate weight of racing and training on Golden Gate Fields, the remaining major track.

The CTBA itself has been an organization under siege, representing, as it does the breeders charged with upholding both the quantity and quality of the Thoroughbred product in California. After years of flailing experimentation, there is no longer a viable yearling sale for breeders. The CTBA membership has yet to formalize its own retirement plan for the thousands of horses they breed. The state's industry is well-subsidized with purse bonuses and guaranteed racing opportunities - as is the case with most statebred programs - but there is a point at which such subsidies can become a crutch, and the idea is lost that they were supposed to be incentives in the first place.

You can't fault Tom and Debi Stull of Tommy Town Thoroughbreds for trying to hold up their end of the bargain. The runners bred at their Santa Ynez farm earned $2.4 million in 2009. That was about a million bucks less, though, than the horses bred by Tommy Town won in 2007, so there is even shrinkage at the top, where all the success is recognized. In accepting the award for California breeder of the year, the soft-spoken Tom Stull urged his fellow breeders to "hang in there."

Barbara Walter took a decidedly different approach in accepting membership in the California Racing Hall of Fame, along with her late husband, Robert. The Walters were responsible for breeding such major winners as Cavonnier, Batroyale, Tout Charmant, Lazy Slusan, Ringaskiddy, and Charmonnier, all bred at their Vine Hill Ranch in the rolling hills to the west of Santa Rosa.

Walter still operates a scaled-back Vine Hill and nurtures hopes for one more Cavonnier, who came within a nose of winning the 1996 Kentucky Derby. She posed a challenge to the beleaguered breeders of California, mired in hard times, passionately observing that they knew what the problems were and had the resources to solve them.

Walter's paean to her late husband was moving, and in perfect harmony with the sentiments expressed by Keith Card, a longtime industry leader for whom California Flag represented the culmination of four decades in the sport. Health problems have plagued Card, 82, for the past two years, and each of his several trips to the awards podium Monday night was not without some difficulty. Each time, though, he managed to deliver a valentine to his horse, of how his Breeders' Cup winner was foaled on a rare, snowy day, "so of course he was gray," and how "it took me a long time, but I finally got it right."

"I love my wife, too," Card added, as Barbara Card laughed and hugged their horse of the year trophy. Check that . . . co-horse of the year.