Eight Remain In Horse of the Year Race

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Ed DeRosa

September 29th, 2014

The criteria voters use to determine their top 10 horses is as subjective as the ranking themselves. Some vote on accomplishment, others based on who is the most talented, some as a pure “Horse of the Year” question, and most as some combination of those three things.

Poll administrator Joan Lawrence has said that the poll should most reflect the voter’s thoughts on who is most likely to win Horse of the Year when the racing season ends. It is with that question in mind that I don’t rank Palace Malice in the top 8, as while he’s the best main track older male to run this year, he has no chance at Horse of the Year as the eight in front of him do.

So, with one major prep weekend remaining ahead of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships on October 31-November 1 at Santa Anita Park, we are down to eight horses who still have a chance at winning the gold statue.

The horses who most control their own destiny are the four Grade 1-winning three-year-olds expected for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. If either of Bayern, California Chrome, Shared Belief, or Tonalist win that race then with one small possible exception discussed below, would undoubtedly be Horse of the Year and champion three-year-old male.

Interestingly, it would also mark the first time in seven years that the Classic winner goes on to win Horse of the Year, and the last time it happened—2007—was in a Classic field most celebrated as a three-year-old showdown between Derby winner Street Sense, Preakness winner Curlin, and Hard Spun, who had just defeated Street Sense in the Kentucky Cup. Curlin won to earn the first of his two Horse of the Year awards.

Next on my list are the multiple Grade 1-winning turf males Main Sequence and Wise Dan. The former has the Grade 1 edge for now, but the latter is running this weekend. If either wins out and one of the aforementioned three-year-olds falters in the Classic then the Horse of the Year could go to the champion turf male for the third consecutive year.

Either Close Hatches or Untapable would gain some Horse of the Year consideration with a Distaff win (that assumes Close Hatches wins the Juddmonte Spinster Stakes on Sunday at Keeneland Race Course), but unless the winner returns to defeat males in a race like the Clark I wouldn’t back them.

Palace Malice and Palace round out my top ten as leaders of the older male and sprint divisions, respectively, but neither is a Horse of the Year candidate.

Some kooky things can happen, of course… if none of the aforementioned horses wins, then California Chrome is probably the most likely Horse of the Year with three Grade 1 wins, including the classic double of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. I wouldn’t vote for him, as he’d be lacking a win against older males, but precedence certainly favors dual classic winners as a default (e.g. Charismatic in 1999), so from a who-will-win versus who-should-win standpoint he’d be my pick.

The closest vote would likely be between a Classic-winning Bayern and a Mile-winning Wise Dan. I’d vote for Bayern if that’s where their seasons end, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Wise Dan in the Clark where a win would likely earn him champion older male for sure and possibly Horse of the Year to go with champion turf male if he wins the Mile (though if Main Sequence wins the Turf then maybe he gets turf male and Wise Dan can get older male and Horse of the Year with a Clark win. It would be a shame to see a multiple Grade 1-winning Turf winner denied an Eclipse Award again a la Little Mike in 2012).

I see no scenario, however, where a Classic win from either of the classic winners (California Chrome and Tonalist) or the undefeated champion Shared Belief does not result in Horse of the Year even if Wise Dan goes on to annex another Grade 1 post Breeders’ Cup.

Either Close Hatches or Untapable would be fun Clark additions if Horse of the Year is in play. Racing Hall of Fame Trainer D. Wayne Lukas saddled three-year-old filly Surfside to a Clark victory in 2000 following a loss to longshot stablemate Spain in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. That win wasn’t good enough for gold, but she did win champion three-year-old filly.

Here’s a look at the Eclipse Award races by division:

Three-year-old male: California Chrome is the leader of the division, but any of the other three Horse of the Year candidates would usurp him with a Breeders’ Cup Classic win. Otherwise, California Chrome—even if he tanks the rest of the year—gets the nod as a dual classic winner.

Three-year-old filly: Kentucky Oaks winner Untapable unquestionably the leader, but Alabama winner Stopchargingmaria would be hard to deny the award if she wins the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. I look at the year both of these horses have had and still can’t believe Oaks-Alabama winner Flute lost champion three-year-old filly to Breeders’ Cup Sprint runner-up Xtra Heat.

Older male: Many horses with just the one Grade 1 win with Palace Malice best of the bunch, but the spring and early summer form has not held well, as three-year-olds have won the major late summer and early fall prizes.

Older female: Close Hatches in the driver’s seat especially with a win on Sunday, but Beholder or Belle Galantey would deserve consideration with a Breeders’ Cup Distaff win

Male sprinter: Likely to come down to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, but Palace leads the division on accomplishment.

Female sprinter: Likely to come down to the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, but Artemis Agrotera has flashed the most brilliance to date.

Turf male: Down to Wise Dan and Main Sequence, a matchup reminiscent of 2012 when Wise Dan, Little Mike, and Point of Entry all came into the Breeders’ Cup with multiple Grade 1 wins. Wise Dan won the Mile and Little Mike the Turf, and the Eclipse Awards went to Wise Dan. I expect the same to happen if Wise Dan threepeats—even if Main Sequence wins his fourth Grade 1 in the Turf.

Turf female: Euro Charlene’s Beverly D. is looking better and better with also rans going on to win Grade 1 races on both coasts, but only a QE2 win might not be enough to take down a Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf winner who already has a Grade 1.