10/29/2008 12:00AM

Tough to dethrone a champ


Boo. It's Halloween. Go put on a Zenyatta mask and frighten the neighborhood Curlinistas.

The idea that the unbeaten 4-year-old filly might unseat the reigning Horse of the Year is unsettling, particularly when the champ has had a pretty good year. But in the wake of Zenyatta's victory and Curlin's loss in separate Breeders' Cup events over Santa Anita's synthetic main track, a movement has bubbled. Gary West, leading the charge on his Fort Worth Star-Telegram blog, tried to stick a quick finger in the dike.

"I'm generally open to a diversity of opinion," West wrote. "But how can the American championship be determined by races run over a surface that's unfamiliar to the majority of American horses? On this, there's a right side and a wrong side. This is a watershed issue: Curlin is Horse of the Year."

Before last Friday, Zenyatta was an abstract concept to casual racing fans and general sportswriters who do not, as a rule, pay much attention to the results of races like the El Encino, the Milady, the Clement Hirsch, and the Lady's Secret. There were rumors, though, of this monstrous 4-year-old filly in California who won every time she appeared, then retreated to her lair, where she was fed a steady diet of humus and whole grains, groomed by pixies, and trained by a man known only by his shaolin nickname "Zenmaster."

In her lone appearance this year on something other than a premium tier cable/satellite racing/betting channel, Zenyatta finally got mainstream facetime last Friday . . . on ESPN2. Don't get me wrong. The Deuce is cool. Where else can you get all the John Madden you could ever need? But the overnight rating for Filly Friday was 0.3, fall far below the 2.0/5 share posted by NBC at Arlington Park four years ago, when Azeri ascended to the throne.

The selection of the Horse of the Year is a slippery beast. At its best, the choice reflects a respect for the standards set by champions past. At its worst, it can be a desperate stab at the end of an unsatisfying season. In the end, though, it is nothing more than a snapshot of a given moment in racing's vast time line.

The common notion is that a female Horse of the Year can emerge only when the male population fails to produce a breakout personality. Certainly, this was the case when Azeri had a nearly perfect season, while the best the boys could do was War Emblem, Left Bank, and Medaglia d'Oro. It also happened in 1965, in the vacuum left by Kelso's eye injury, when the racing secretaries of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations chose as their ultimate champ the 2-year-old filly Moccasin (a slick 8 for 8, but only against her gender). The alternatives that year were Tom Rolfe, Gun Bow, and Roman Brother, who topped the Daily Racing Form/Morning Telegraph Horse of the Year poll despite losing 9 of his 14 starts.

In 1986, Lady's Secret benefited from a tangle at the top of the older male division that included Turkoman, Precisionist, Greinton and Breeders' Cup Classic winner Skywalker, while the 3-year-olds essentially disappeared after Ferdinand, Snow Chief, and Danzig Connection divvied up the Triple Crown. Lady's Secret also won 10 of 15, including the Whitney against males, which helped make the decision easier.

In 1983, All Along did something that needs careful explaining today, especially in view of such lightly campaigned Horses of the Year as Ghostzapper and Invasor. In the space of 42 days, All Along won the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the Rothmans International in Toronto, the Turf Classic at Belmont and the Washington, D.C. International at Laurel. After that, the admirable records of male champions Slew o' Gold and Bates Motel seemed lacking.

Joe Hirsch, the retired Racing Form columnist whose name now adorns the Turf Classic, was asked this week what it takes, in his view, for a filly to be named Horse of the Year.

"When she can beat the colts in the best races," Hirsch quickly replied. "Like Twilight Tear. She was the best."

Twilight Tear ran 17 times in 1944 and won 14 races for Calumet Farm. Half of those wins were against males. She was also nicknamed "Suzie" for reasons that have apparently slipped through the cracks of time. The only reason Twilight Tear did not win the '44 Kentucky Derby is because Ben Jones thought he also could win it with her stablemate, Pensive, which he did. The best older horse of 1944 was Devil Diver, who finished six lengths behind "Suzie" in the Pimlico Special.

Busher ran 13 times in 1945 and won 10 races for Louis B. Mayer, whose MGM studios that year released "Anchors Aweigh" and "Abbott and Costello Go to Hollywood." When Santa Anita reopened that May, after the war ended in Europe, Busher beat colts in the San Vicente and older mares in the Santa Margarita. In Chicago, she defeated Armed in the Washington Park Handicap, then returned to the coast to win the Hollywood Derby. The champion older horse of 1945 was Stymie, who won 9 of 19 starts. Not bad, but not Busher.

Horse of the Year voters have another couple of months to decide whether or not the 2008 version of Zenyatta belongs in this tribe. Better yet, she is destined to race next year, so the ultimate verdict can wait. In the end, she will have the same challenge as Curlin faced all year long, of trying to live up to her own lofty standards.