01/11/2013 2:38PM

Steven Crist: Horse of the Year candidates a bit short on Grade 1 credentials

Barbara D. Livingston
Horse of the Year favorite Wise Dan won three Grade 1 races in 2012, fewer than many of the top Eclipse winners since 1973.

Whether it is Fort Larned, I’ll Have Another, or Wise Dan whose name is called from the podium Saturday night at the Eclipse Awards, the 2012 Horse of the Year will have had a below-average number of Grade 1 victories in his campaign for the sport’s top prize.

How far below? That was the question I set out to answer after writing two weeks ago that two Grade 1 victories by such an honoree would be a “historically low” number, which meant at the time that I knew it was low but hadn’t counted them up for each of the 39 Horse of the Year campaigns since stakes races became graded in 1973.

Now I have. It turns out that two (Fort Larned) or three (I’ll Have Another and Wise Dan, if you count his Grade 1 victory in Canada) is indeed below average (the average is 4.12, the median is 4) but has happened a dozen times before. At the other end of the spectrum, the exercise provided a reminder of just how good the very best Horse of the Year campaigns really were.

[COLUMN COMPANION: Horse of the Year and Grade 1's]

The tally is somewhat muddled by the changes in the grades of races over the years. Races that we now assume have always been Grade 1’s did not always have that status, and new races often had to wait a year or three to attain Grade 1 status. When Secretariat won the Canadian International in 1973, for example, it was considered only a Grade 2 race. John Henry’s 1981 Arlington Million and Cigar’s 1996 Dubai World Cup were ungraded for their inaugural runnings.

There’s a further muddle when comparing younger and older horses who have won the honor. Of the 12 Horses of the Year who won only two or three Grade 1’s, seven were 2-year-olds or 3-year-olds who did not race full seasons, such as Conquistador Cielo in 1982 or Charismatic in 1999. This is not to say that a truly exceptional 3-year-old can not win more: Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), Sunday Silence (1989), Holy Bull (1994), and Point Given (2001) each won five such races as 3-year-olds. (Easy Goer actually won six Grade 1’s in Sunday Silence’s year. No, I didn’t vote for him.)

Here is the breakdown by number of Grade 1 victories during their Horse of the Year seasons. (A list of what Grade 1 races each horse won can be found on my blog at drf.com.):

Two Grade 1’s (9): Conquistador Cielo (1982) Spend a Buck (1985), Ferdinand (1987), Black Tie Affair (1991), Cigar (1996) Favorite Trick (1997), Charismatic (1999), Tiznow (2000), Ghostzapper (2004).

Three Grade 1’s (3): A. P. Indy (1992), Curlin (2007), Havre de Grace (2011).

Four Grade 1’s (11): Secretariat (1973), Forego (1974-75-76), All Along (1983), John Henry (1984), Criminal Type (1990), Mineshaft (2003), Saint Liam (2005), Invasor (2006), Curlin (2008).

Five Grade 1’s (11): Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), Spectacular Bid (1980), John Henry (1981), Sunday Silence (1989), Kotashaan (1993), Holy Bull (1994), Skip Away (1998), Point Given (2001), Rachel Alexandra (2009), Zenyatta (2010).

Six Grade 1’s (2): Affirmed (1979), Alysheba (1988).

Seven Grade 1’s (1): Azeri (2002).

Eight Grade 1’s (2): Lady’s Secret (1986), Cigar (1995).

Of the 11 horses who won five Grade 1’s en route to Horse of the Year honors, all but Kotashaan (all turf) are already in the Hall of Fame or shoo-ins when they become eligible (Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta). To look back at the campaigns of the two who won eight Grade 1’s in a year – more than all three Horse of the Year finalists combined to do in 2012 – is to marvel at what seems like a bygone era of true barnstorming.

[2012 ECLIPSE AWARDS: List of finalists, full DRF profiles]

Lady’s Secret made an astounding 15 starts in 1986, 13 of them in Grade 1 races, winning 10 times: She took the Grade 3 El Encino and Grade 2 Molly Pitcher in addition to her eight Grade 1 triumphs in the La Canada, Santa Margarita, Shuvee, Whitney, Maskette, Ruffian, Beldame, and Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She somehow also found time to run second in the Apple Blossom, Hempstead, and Woodward, and third in the Met Mile and Iselin.

Cigar in 1995 was a more efficient 8 for 8 in his Grade 1 starts, with victories in the ungraded Massachusetts Handicap and a Gulfstream allowance race to boot. He reeled off his eight Grade 1’s from coast to coast, taking the Donn, Gulfstream Park Handicap, Oaklawn Handicap, Pimlico Special, Hollywood Gold Cup, Woodward, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

That’s the difference between a Horse of the Year and a Horse for the Ages.