And the 2009 Horse of the Year is…

Nov 10th 2009 03:48 am |

Without insulting those who are going to be talking and writing about this ad nauseum for the next few months, I say “who cares?” I think we should all take a page from our pal Lisa at the Superfecta blog who wrote this in an outstanding piece after Zenyatta’s unbelievable win in the Breeders Cup Classic on Saturday:

“In the end, Horse of the Year will not matter; the votes of a select few will bestow that title on one (or, ideally, both) of these outstanding fillies, but our collective memory will do them a better sort of justice – we will count Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta among the very greatest horses ever to have graced the track.” (On Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra and Memory)

Brilliantly and beautifully said, I could not agree more. Whichever filly finishes second in the voting won’t make me (or most race fans) think any less of their accomplishments this year. I realize that content producers need something to talk and debate but I find that such debates can devolve into combativeness where one side begins to denigrate the resume of the other (i.e.: Jerry Baily, on the ESPN telecast, knocked Rachel Alexandra for ducking the Travers within minutes of Zenyatta winning the Classic). Neither of these fillies should be denigrated to prove the superiority of the other – they are both great racehorses.

The only way we might determine the better horse would be if they actually raced each other (and even then, questions would remain). If Zenyatta beats Rachel Alexandra for Horse of the Year (or vice versa) does that mean one is “better” than the other? I don’t think so.

I have seen a number of people express the hope that the two fillies could share the award. This would be OK by me but barring a mathematical miracle where the voting ends in a dead heat or the voting is fixed or suspended this year – it’s not going to happen. Talk of a shared Horse of the Year sparked a memory of something I read in racing historian Edward Bowen’s excellent Masters of the Turf . Bowen wrote this about the evolution of the “official” Horse of the Year award:

“In 1936 Daily Racing Form began a formal vote to designate champions in various age/sex divisions. In 1950 the Thoroughbred Racing Associations began conducting a vote on its own, and from time to time American Thoroughbred racing might have duplicate champions. Among examples, Bold Ruler and Dedicate split the honor of Horse of the Year in 1957, as did Mocassin and Roman Brother in 1965, and Fort Marcy and Personality in 1970.”

“Beginning in 1971, the Eclipse Award format unified the Racing Form and TRA polls and also incorporated the National Turf Writers Association. Since then, there has been one Horse of the Year per season, and jimmying of procedures has more or less eliminated ties in the various divisions.”

“Well, starting with 1936 as the dawn of official championships meant that a great deal of American Turf history existed in a sort of limbo. Not long before the advent of the Eclipse Awards, Kent Hollingsworth, then editor of the Blood Horse, pored over the history of racing as passed down by such stalwart journalists as John Hervey, Walter Vosburgh, Joseph A. Estes, and Joe Palmer. Based on his conclusions relative to their opinions, Hollingsworth published in The Great Ones a list of division and overall champions (Horse of the Year) starting in 1870,”

“The Blood-Horse from time to time has published this list, which in many circles has taken on the imprimatur of officialdom. There are individuals within the racing press today who actually use the phrase ‘voted Horse of the Year’ about some long ago beast who predated by many years anything that could be reasonably called a vote. The late Hollingsworth would be pleased by the credibility assigned his efforts, while at the same time aggrieved by the sloppiness of reporting and general lack of understanding that everything prior to 1936 should be looked upon as different from votes commencing in that year.”

SIDENOTE: The book Bowen refers to above – The Great Ones by Kent Hollingsworth – is impossible to find and is due for a reprint. It appears the initial printing was small.

Even in 1972, after the Horse of the Year became “official”, publications like Turf and Sport Digest continued their own end of the year awards. We recall Secretariat as a two-time horse of the year recipient. Not according to Turf and Sport who crowned Key to the Mint the 1972 Horse of the Year. In fact the two-year-old filly La Prevoyante received more HOY votes than Secretariat.

When it comes right down to it, awards can be pretty meaningless except to those with the power to vote. The long range importance of any race horse, as Lisa so eloquently pointed out, is how they are remembered. For anyone who witnessed the amazing feats of Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, they will be remembered for what they did on the track, not for winning (or losing) Horse of the Year.

And let’s watch this year’s racing masterpieces one more time…

Be sure to check this out: On Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra and Memory. This is the best take on the Zenyatta-Rachel A debate I have read so far.

Jessica from Raceday360 put together a handy spreadsheet listing the 2009 accomplishments of Rachel A and Zenyatta.

Hope everyone had a good Breeders Cup…


Filed in Bowen, Ed,Breeders Cup Classic, 2009,history of the United States Horse of the year award,Horse of the Year,Rachel Alexandra,Zenyatta,Zenyatta v. Rachel Alexandra

8 Responses to “And the 2009 Horse of the Year is…”

  1. Superfecta says:

    Aw, thanks! Your piece is great as well.

  2. Keith - TripleDeadHeat says:

    Nicely done Mr. Ghost.

    As I was at Saratoga for the Woodward, my bias is towards Rachel Alexandra.

    A tie seems the only fair way to decide it but I would not be surprised if the voters decide to respect their elders and pick Z.

  3. Bob says:

    I'm with you on that brother. I've given up on the tedium that surrounds The Eclipse Awards and, specifically, HOY. Both are nothing more than ways of massaging the egos and padding the pockets of the owners.

  4. The_Knight_Sky says:

    Thanks for the summary Mr. Ghost.

    I've thrown in my two cents.
    So I thought.

    Then I saw Jessica's spreadsheet.
    Very nicely done.

    That should be ample fuel for me to get back and thrown in another two cents around the web. Good day. 😉

  5. Anonymous says:

    Hello and thank you for this commentary. I am a HUGE Rachel fan and saw her run at the Mother Goose and the Woodward. I had very bittersweet feelings about Zenyatta's victory last Saturday. She is an amazing horse, but her victory seems to diminish Rachel's achievements for many people. I think the people who decide these things should say the heck with the rules and make them co-HOY.

  6. E-man says:

    Thanks for the primer on how the annual championship system originated, and how the “retrospective” champions were determined.

    P.S. — nice job on the site re-design!

  7. MS says:

    Zenyatta should be Horse of the year!!!!!!!! She has had a GREAT careeer!!!!

    14 RACES!!!!!! 14wins!!!!!!!

  8. layne says:

    who is horse of the year?? i’ve searched the website and cant find it…=] so if anyone could let me know that would be great!