10/29/2010 4:03PM

Zenyatta must earn title on the track

Benoit & Associates
Jockey Mike Smith signs a good luck banner for Zenyatta at Hollywood Park.

NEW YORK – If Zenyatta wins the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday, finishing her career 20 for 20 with a victory over the best horses she has ever faced at the iconic American showcase of 10 furlongs on the dirt at Churchill Downs, it will be a spectacular moment in all of racing history. It would of course also rightly make her a virtually unanimous choice as the nation’s Horse of the Year, an honor for which she finished second in the balloting in 2008 and 2009.

If she loses the Classic to a longshot with no other claim to the title, she still could well win that award. No one in his right mind would say that First Dude or Morning Line deserves it if he springs an unlikely upset, and no one is going to make the wonderful Goldikova America’s Horse of the Year off a single start here, even if she wins a third Breeders’ Cup Mile.

Such a scenario would be similar to the Horse of the Year selections of Lady’s Secret in 1986 and Azeri in 2002. Both were great racemares and first-ballot Hall of Famers, but they won the biggest Eclipse Award in those years not only because of their talent but also because there were upsets in the Classic by comparatively unaccomplished horses (Skywalker, Volponi) that left no plausible alternatives. Both had imperfect seasons – Lady’s Secret lost five races and Azeri never faced males – but were the best available choices.

If, however, Zenyatta loses the Classic to Blame, Lookin At Lucky, or Quality Road, she does not deserve to be the Horse of the Year for 2010. She may well be the Horse of the Last Three Years or Distaffer of the Decade, and she might be the only horse in the field who ultimately is elected to racing’s Hall of Fame, but she would not be the most accomplished racehorse of 2010.

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Suppose for a moment that Quality Road wins the Classic. His 2010 record would be the same 5 for 6 as Zenyatta’s, but with open Grade 1 victories in the Donn, the Met Mile, the Woodward, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic and a victory over Zenyatta in their only meeting. It would be indefensible and irrational to claim that he is less deserving of the award than Zenyatta, whose 2010 r é sum é would consist of five victories in races restricted to females and a loss to Quality Road in their only meeting and in her only start against males.

Zenyatta would not have won a race with a single Grade 1 winner in it this year, while Quality Road would have won four open Grade 1 races, beaten several champions, and ended Zenyatta’s historic winning streak. This would not mean that Quality Road had a better career or holds a more important place in the annals of the sport, but he would unquestionably be the most deserving Horse of the Year selection for 2010.

Yet some Eclipse Award voters have already publicly declared that they will ignore anything that happens on the track Saturday and vote for Zenyatta.

John Pricci, the former Newsday columnist, blogged that he “will enter and exit the Classic with a closed mind. No matter how the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic turns out, my Horse of the Year ballot will be inscribed with one name: Zenyatta.”

Joe Drape of The New York Times wrote that “Whether she wins or loses the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 6, Zenyatta is the Horse of the Year. End of story.” Drape’s rationale was that “she should have won it last year” and that she is “an all-time great.”

It would indeed be a historical curiosity if Zenyatta never won a Horse of the Year award despite three sensational campaigns, but it would be neither unprecedented nor disparaging of her achievements and her secure and rightful place among racing’s greatest fillies. Dozens of other great females from Shuvee and Ruffian to Bayakoa and Personal Ensign were never Horse of the Year, nor should they have been.

Zenyatta deserved to share last year’s award with Rachel Alexandra, but voters were deprived of that option. Giving her an award she might not deserve this year if she loses the Classic does not change that, however. It would only make a travesty of an awards process that is supposed to be ruled by fairness and reason rather than revenge and sentimentality.