Like the Super Bowl, these races decided championships
Comparing horse racing with football, or any other sport for that matter, is the proverbial apples vs. oranges debate. To the chagrin of some racing fans with fanciful notions, no one race has ever, or can ever, solely determine Horse of the Year every year. Some might wish, for example, that the Kentucky Derby or Breeders' Cup Classic were definitive in that respect, but the vagaries of racing require a larger body of work to be considered rather than just a single performance.
Another unique feature of racing is that Horse of the Year is often based not only by what the winners themselves have done, but is also the result of the shortcomings of his/her main rival(s) for the honor in other races.
The following is one person's opinion of which races in the Super Bowl-era (1966-2014) more or less solidified Horse of the Year honors for the individual winners.
1966 - Woodward (Aqueduct) BUCKPASSER, who defeated dual classic winner Kauai King handily in the Arlington Classic earlier, likely clinched top honors here, the second of his three stakes triumphs against older horses. A later win the Jockey Club Gold Cup was pure gravy.
1967 - Woodward (Aqueduct) The "Race of the Century" turned into an anti-climactic exhibition when DAMASCUS won by 10 lengths over Buckpasser, with Dr. Fager a half-length farther back in third.
1968 - United Nations (Atlantic City) A neck victory in his only start ever on turf, while toting 134 pounds, gave DR. FAGER a third divisional title (DRF's grass award) to go along with the older male and sprint championships he had essentially clinched with his world-record mile in the Washington Park Handicap.
1969 - Woodward (Belmont Park) Having beaten Majestic Prince by a larger margin in the Belmont than that rival had beaten him combined in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, ARTS AND LETTERS beat TRA older male champion Nodouble for a second time here. A third win over that rival, by 14 lengths, followed in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
1970 - Washington D.C. International (Laurel) FORT MARCY got the DRF's approval after this victory, which established him as one of the greatest turf horses in the world. It capped an impressive three-race win streak that included the United Nations and Man o' War.
Woodward (Belmont Park) A split award this year as the TRA went traditional (i.e. dirt) and voted for three-year-old champion PERSONALITY after beating a not-terribly deep group of older rivals.
1971 - Hollywood Gold Cup (Hollywood Park) ACK ACK carried 134 pounds and set all the fractions in this 1 1/4-mile event (:45 2/5, 1:09, 1:34 1/5, 1:59 4/5) en route to an easy 3 3/4-length score. He never raced again, but had already done enough in the first 6 1/2 months of the year to secure older male and sprint titles.
1972 - Garden State (Garden State Park) A prescient selection by voters who recognized a giant in the making. SECRETARIAT did Secretariat-like things here as a two-year-old in one of the richest races at the time, impressing voters more than La Prevoyante's 12-for-12 record against juvenile fillies and Key to the Mint's respectable three-year-old campaign. The latter's Horse of the Year claims seemingly crashed when he lost by 15 lengths to Autobiography in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, even though he had beaten that rival three times previously.
1973 - Belmont (Belmont Park) SECRETARIAT...by 31 lengths!
1974 - Vosburgh Handicap (Aqueduct) FOREGO clinched an unlikely sprint title here to go along with an older male crown he had more or less secured with win in the Woodward over 1 1/2 miles in his previous start. After this triumph going seven furlongs, he promptly stretched back out to two miles (!) and won the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
1975 - Woodward (Belmont Park) After dropping two straight to the three-year-old Wajima while conceding weight on the scale both times, FOREGO finally got the better of his younger rival at scale weights in this 1 1/2-mile showdown. Wajima's candidacy took a lethal hit when he unexpectedly dropped the Jockey Club Gold Cup in Forego's absence.
1976 - Marlboro Cup (Belmont Park) FOREGO solidified his legendary status with a remarkable, patented rundown of three-year-old rival Honest Pleasure in this 1 1/4-mile handicap.
1977 - Belmont (Belmont Park) SEATTLE SLEW completed a Triple Crown sweep while Forego did just enough later in the year to claim a fourth divisional title as champion older male.
1978 - Belmont (Belmont Park) AFFIRMED's narrow Triple Crown sweep over arch-rival Alydar was remembered more than his two losses to Seattle Slew in the fall.
1979 - Jockey Club Gold Cup (Belmont Park) A clash of titans resulted in AFFIRMED winning by three-quarters of a length over Spectacular Bid.
1980 - Woodward (Belmont Park) SPECTACULAR BID probably clinched top honors well before this, but hard to argue you've really got things under control when no one else shows up to run against you.
1981 - Jockey Club Gold Cup (Belmont Park) JOHN HENRY clinched an older male title with this score, which followed an earlier win in the Santa Anita Handicap. He was already the turf male champ-designate.
1982 - Belmont (Belmont Park) A 14-length victory here by CONQUISTADOR CIELO came a mere five days after he had beaten older horses by 7 1/4 lengths in the Metropolitan Handicap. He lightly padded his record with wins in the Dwyer and Jim Dandy, while older horses Lemhi Gold and Perrault failed to do enough in the summer and fall to take it away from him.
1983 - Washington D.C. International (Laurel) ALL ALONG completed an unprecedented and unmatched streak here that also included wins in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, Canadian International, and Turf Classic...all in the span of six weeks!
1984 - Ballantine's Scotch Classic (Meadowlands) Slew o' Gold most certainly lost the title by impersonating a pinball in the Breeders' Cup Classic, but JOHN HENRY surpassed $6.5 million in career earnings with this victory, his sixth in a row on the grass. Nine-year-olds simply aren't supposed to do that at the highest level.
1985 - Monmouth Handicap (Monmouth Park) Kentucky Derby winner SPEND A BUCK earned an important victory against older horses in his career finale, and was flattered that fall when Proud Truth and Chief's Crown, whom he had beaten at Churchill Downs, kept potential rivals to the crown at bay.
1986 - Breeders' Cup Distaff (Santa Anita) The race was a mere formality for LADY'S SECRET, who aced this exam pretty much like all the others against fellow fillies and mares. Aided by the defeats of Turkoman and Precisionist later in the Breeders' Cup Classic, she had beaten males in the Whitney and finished ahead of older male champ Turkoman in the Met Mile earlier in the season.
1987 - Breeders' Cup Classic (Hollywood Park) FERDINAND staved off fellow Kentucky Derby winner Alysheba by a nose in one of racing's great finishes for the beloved duo of trainer Charlie Whittigham and jockey Bill Shoemaker. Neither horse's record was impeccable, though, with Manila, Theatrical, and Java Gold also possessing strong claims to the title.
1988 - Breeders' Cup Classic (Churchill Downs) Over a wet track he was prone to dislike immensely in the past, ALYSHEBA beat one of the best Classic fields ever assembled and edged out Personal Ensign, who had completed her perfect career in memorable fashion earlier in the day in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.
1989 - Breeders' Cup Classic (Gulfstream Park) SUNDAY SILENCE epically downed Easy Goer for a third time in four meetings while also beating the nation's best older horse Blushing John.
Part two of this feature, covering the years 1990-2014, will appear Wednesday.
(Secretariat photo: Jerry Cooke/Sports Illustrated)