In Horse of the Year debate, American Pharoah shouldn't be too big to fail

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

August 24th, 2015

In this space a couple of days after American Pharoah completed a Triple Crown sweep in the Belmont S. (G1), I acknowledged the reality that he was a lock for 2015 Horse of the Year honors. I also noted that such a coronation could be seen in the eyes of a very select few as premature, especially if American Pharoah were to lose later in the season to a rival that would be duly qualified for the award under normal circumstances.

The historical example I used for my argument was 1978, when Triple Crown winner Affirmed lost twice in the fall to champion older male Seattle Slew (albeit once due to a slipped saddle). Despite the objective evidence, voters sided with Affirmed as national champion while Seattle Slew was sent packing despite arguably being the best horse on the scene.

Nearly three months later, the realities have not changed. American Pharoah will win Horse of the Year in an overwhelming landslide. What is different is that we now know the identities of the only two horses who have both the credentials and ability to potentially be the 2015 version of Seattle Slew.

He didn't make it easy on himself, but Honor Code's last-lunge victory in the Whitney (G1) earlier this month put him on top among active older dirt males. Also the winner of the Metropolitan H. (G1) and Gulfstream Park H. (G2) earlier this year, Honor Code will next try either the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) or Kelso H. (G2), although the Gold Cup is clearly the race more worthy of his presence.

The other horse is dual champion mare Beholder, who on Saturday at Del Mar turned in a sublime and historic effort becoming the first female ever to win the Pacific Classic (G1). The competition was easy to knock beforehand and afterwards, but when you face allegedly inferior rivals you should pound them. Did she ever -- by 8 1/4 lengths! Whether she tries the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) or Distaff (G1) remains to be seen, but whichever it is she'll probably prep for it in the Zenyatta (G1).

Provided Honor Code and Beholder get through their final Breeders' Cup preps unscathed, and likewise with American Pharoah in Saturday's Travers (G1) and any other race he may try, the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) at Keeneland has the potential to be one of the most dramatic in history.

Except for the fact it won't be. There will be nothing on the line except money and, if American Pharoah happens to lose to either Honor Code or Beholder, bragging rights with no bite.

Once American Pharoah crossed the finish line first in the Belmont, he became one of those rare sorts -- a "No Matter What" Horse of the Year. Aside from past Triple Crown winners, there haven't been too many of these in history.

Based on modern criteria, Native Dancer would have to be judged one. The once-beaten television idol came out on the short end of the stick in 1953 versus Tom Fool, so voters made it up to him the following year despite the fact he appeared in and won a single stakes race -- the Met Mile.

More recently, a majority of voters appeared to have mentally affixed the "No Matter What" label to Skip Away who, in 1998, was rewarded despite soundly losing one of the deepest Breeders' Cup Classics in history. In 2010, Zenyatta narrowly missed completing a remarkable rally, and capping an undefeated career, in the Classic against Blame, but prevailed comfortably at the polls despite not having won a non-restricted race all year.

With no preferred dog in this hypothetical Classic showdown, it would be a pleasure to see any of these three take down the most lucrative race in the country. However, a loss by American Pharoah to either Honor Code or Beholder perhaps should trigger a re-assessment about the propriety of a "No Matter What" philosophy.

(Beholder photo: Benoit Photo)