01/11/2013 3:38PM

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

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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.

ReddyRoadster More than 1 year ago
Lady's Secret overpowered the majority of the racing fields that she hooked, but there was no matching Zenyatta's class, personality and charisma. She was a horse built for the spotlights and the finish line and we won't see another like her for a long long time.
James More than 1 year ago
Look at Lady's Secret's year again and tell me why Zenyatta is considered superior to her again?
Mike More than 1 year ago
Lady's Secret was a fantastic horse but Zenyatta belong among the rarest of US thorougbreds, she won an open G1 at the our classic distance of 10 furlongs and almost won another both in a championship field. If my recollection is correct, there are fewer of her class than triple crown winners.
Gunner More than 1 year ago
Lady's Secret won the "open" G-1 Whitney. She also won the BC Distaff at the classic distance of 10 furlongs. She won a total of 25 times over four racing years. Don't really see a problem with her.
Mike More than 1 year ago
Let me say it again OPEN GRADE ONE Classic Distance of 19 furlongs or longer....Very few females have won such races....and as I have stated fewer than winners of the triple crown.. I hope that is clearer.....very few females have won this kind of races. The Whitney was not 10 furlongs and the distaff was females only.... Even Rachel Alexandra DUCKED THAT KIND OF RACE.
hialeah More than 1 year ago
so the problem is YOU
Mike More than 1 year ago
Hialeah....lmfao a quarterhorse track today! lol
ghost2_ More than 1 year ago
Why the gratuitous dig at Zenyatta? There's no reason for it. Lady's Secret and Zenyatta both had great careers, in different eras.
Mike More than 1 year ago
Actually, Zenyatta was the stronger horse, it is just people have less history and never saw the great routers of the past. The greats who can run 10 furlongs or longers. The fans today are more tuned in to short speed horses, mostly the 9 furlongs milers. The kind of horses the industy has been promoting. We will now have our first ever MILER as hoty in Wise Dan. Same hype that the Brits have done on Frankel, no doubt a great miler but his hype as greatest ever is misplaced. Not once has that horse run in any 12 furlongs prestigious race in europe and that is their classic distance.
Big Jeff More than 1 year ago
This article didn't say anything about Zenyatta being better than L.S.
anonymous More than 1 year ago
You say the awards are Sat. night and I thought you meant this weekend but they're next weekend. Misleading.
Big Jeff More than 1 year ago
Oh no!...... now what?
hialeah More than 1 year ago
Hi Steve, Interesting, as always, and Azeri had a great 8 for 9 season in 02. But as you point, out changes in the grades of races do occur over the years and my now (somewhat worn) edition of "Champions" reveals that the CL Hirsch Handicap (126 lbs) and Lady's Secret BC Handicap (127) were Gr. 2 that year. So although Azeri ran off her final 7 races in Graded company, the form shows five (5) to be Gr. 1 and two (2) at Gr. 2. Still quite a year. Thanks.
MICHAEL More than 1 year ago
The real difference is back then we bred real thoroughbreds to race in the 12 furlongs Belmont and the triple crown. Today we breed them to breed and race them like quarterhorses in more ways than one and target the Met Mile. These wannabes dont run long enough to accumulate fans and followers. When the breeding stop producing the great handicap horses like Forego, kelso, john henry, that brought in fans, it mark the beginning of the end. These frail short career cookie cutter milers and sprinters do not race long enough today to develop a fan base.
russell More than 1 year ago
I agree with that. Horses nowadays are mostly bred to be milers and sprinters with the hope that they can get 9 or 10f. But as Ive said 100 times how many races are run in this country at distances beyond 9f? How many allowance and MSW are run at 9fs or beyond. 25 years ago NYRA used to run a ton of races at 10f and 11f on the turf. Now they are almost all gone. The only way to stop the trend is to award 25% more in purses for distance races over there sprint counterparts.
MICHAEL More than 1 year ago
Russell, I do not think increasing the purse for distance races is going to change things. The big money is still in the breeding shed. Take Frankel, arguably the greatest miler from europe and yet never attempted one european classic of 12 furlongs. He is hyped for the breeding shed. No he is not the greatest ever, forget that hype. His 147 eas done in a very straight course and doubtful he could do that in any 12 fur course where his stamina and agility he has never shown would be severely tested.
russell More than 1 year ago
There is a saying "If you build it they will come". Toss more money at distance races and horse buyers will start buying and plucking horses from Europe and South America. That will lead to actually breeding horses to go distances in the USA. It's worth a try. The way the trend is going we will be running races at 4 1/2 furlongs on a regular basis at major tracks in 10 years. I do agree with the Frankel comment.
MICHAEL More than 1 year ago
Well maybe you are right....anything to stop breeding towards quarterhorses is worth a try.....and yes you are right, they are already doing that....just look at the endless parade of sprint races at the venerable Saratoga.....sad really.
Van Cushny More than 1 year ago
I like the idea of increasing purses for races 10 furlongs or more. They also need to have a better series of races that supports the BC marathon. 40 years ago they used to run a 12 furlong dirt race at Belmont every day.
Gunner More than 1 year ago
Ran a 12 furlong stake at AQU today.
K More than 1 year ago
Rachel a shoo-in to the hall of fame? Really? Because she could beat Nan and Mind that bird? If there is a hall of fame for three-year old filly's put here in. But I don't see Persistently or Zardana running down Spectacular Bid or Cigar. She doesn't belong anywhere close to those true hall-of-famers.
James More than 1 year ago
Are you joking?
Michelle Harmon More than 1 year ago
You've got to be kidding. The parade of top females over the past few years is what has kept racing from going completely down the tubes. Azeri, Rachel, Zenyatta, and Havre De Grace are what racing is all about. Rachel's gutsy victories still give me chills to watch, as a matter of fact. Why you feel the need to denigrate the victories of one of the game's greats is beyond comprehension. Be thankful that you were alive to see her run. As a true racing fan, the opportunity to see Ruffian, Lady's Secret, Seattle Slew, Cigar, Winning Colors, etc, etc, run would have been the opportunity of a lifetime for me.
mikey More than 1 year ago
No doubt these females were exceptional and Zenyatta a throwback to past greats. But let us be honest here. The shortening of the great races from 10-12 furlongs to 8.5 to 9 furlongs is why these females were able to compete They shortened the great eastern races to accomodate the milers we breed today. Yes, the heavy lifting are done by the females today, because of one big shift in racing and that is the breeding for milers.
MICHAEL More than 1 year ago
It was cheapened when Rachel won the award and that is why Blame got the shaft.
AndrewD More than 1 year ago
The award is given to the horse that had the most outstanding year versus it's peers. Since the award was cheapened when it was given to Zenyatta as a lifetime achievement award, who really cares who gets it anymore.
MICHAEL More than 1 year ago
The quick ROI in the breeding shed is why this is a dead industry. All this breeding for speed horses like Rachel who cannot get 10 furlongs has killed this sport. Miler for horse of the year? Tells you all you need to know. Lets breed toward quarterhorses instead of another secretariat. Yeah thats the ticket.
sat.customer More than 1 year ago
Well said. Curlin may be the last great Handicap horse we ever see.
sat.customer More than 1 year ago
Why would anyone give a thumbs down to AD post. it's right on the money. You got 3 nice but far from great horses up for the award. Really,who cares ?
therealdubwhite More than 1 year ago
Wise Dan's campaign or lack of campaign would have been embarrassing from 2000-2009, he would have never made the eclipse award ballot in these years. Zenyatta's connections have lowered the bar and those that are unable to stay objective have followed and said by means of their votes and inability to hold connections accountable, that whatever campaign you put your horse through is fine. You'll get this meaningless award anyway.
Robert More than 1 year ago
he isnt being judged against horses running in those years he is being judged against horses who ran in 2012. I Saw Wise Dan run 3 times in person and he is hte real deal and if he wins a deserving HOYfor 2012.
redboy More than 1 year ago
I think what we are witnessing,is a new trend,.Horses no longer being campaigned longer than needed . A couple of Grade 1 wins and your off to the breeding shed.Just look at all the 3 and 4 year olds over the last 2 years that have been retired after a couple of grade 1 wins .Owners are not going to risk the potential breeding payday .The latest example (High Tail)who won the BC Juvenile sprint,than ran a fourth in his next race,Now retired . Isnt it weird how when a horse gets gelded they become so much more durable,so much less injury prone..?