Why American Pharoah is a lock for the Horse of the Year, but shouldn't quite be

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

June 8th, 2015

Now that we've had a day or two to digest what we just witnessed and are gradually coming down from our euphoric heights, some food for thought.

Will American Pharoah be crowned 2015 Horse of the Year at season's end? Unquestionably, yes.

Is it right and proper that, for most people, the poll officially closed at approximately 7 p.m. (EDT) on June 6? Well, count me among the very tiny minority that says no.

Since divisional polling began in 1936, every previous Triple Crown winner was ultimately named Horse of the Year. That's War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed.

A Triple Crown sweep was and is considered such a transcending accomplishment that, only until very recently, no three-year-old was ever voted Horse of the Year without having won a stakes open to older horses. The only exceptions to that precedent were Triple Crown winners.

However, since 1999, voters have ditched this logical precedent three times and sided with dual classic winners Charismatic, Point Given, and California Chrome in Horse of the Year polling despite the lack of a victory in an open stakes (Full disclosure: I stuck with tradition and voted for Victory Gallop, Tiznow, and Shared Belief in those years).

The previous Triple Crown winners that were named Horse of the Year without winning an open stakes were:

*Whirlaway (1941), who finished second in two attempts in stakes open to older horses, but both times to fellow three-year-olds. Older male champion Mioland never won a stakes outside California and not at all after July 4.

*Count Fleet (1943) did not race after winning the Belmont by 25 lengths, and the electorate that year was split as to whether Devil Diver or Market Wise was the best older horse.

*Seattle Slew (1977) won over older male champ Forego, who had a down year by his standards with only three stakes wins in six attempts, generally because his mushy ankles kept absorbing the weight of the baby grand he was routinely asked to carry.

*Affirmed (1978) was named Horse of the Year over older male champion Seattle Slew -- despite objective evidence Seattle Slew was the better of the two that fall.

The first ever meeting between Triple Crown winners occurred in the Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park over 1 1/8 miles. In receipt of only one pound on the scale from his younger rival, Seattle Slew won convincingly by three lengths.

One might argue Affirmed was a tired horse by that point. It was his 10th start of the year, and only Seattle Slew's fourth. Plus Affirmed had had to deal with a determined rival named Alydar four times that spring and summer.

We can't forget, though, that Seattle Slew had to overcome his own adversity that season. His campaign was cut short multiple times as he fought off a near-fatal bout of Colitis X and later developed filling in a hock.

The pair met again in the 1 1/2-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup at weight-for-age. The two champions dueled through early splits of :22 3/5 and :45 1/5, after which Affirmed was forced to retreat after his saddle slipped. Seattle Slew continued to set a torrid pace, yielded a short lead to Exceller in the stretch, and then came back and nearly won.

Seattle Slew's nose defeat in the Gold Cup is considered by many to be the best race of his career, the one that defined his greatness. Despite turning in a terrific season on both dirt and turf, Exceller lost older male honors to Seattle Slew, no doubt due to the latter's courageous loss in defeat and his earlier four-length win over Exceller in the Woodward.

Most would still argue that Affirmed's sweep of the Triple Crown trumped any individual loss(es) he might have incurred later in the year, even to a horse as good as Seattle Slew. I like to think, based on the evidence, that I would have backed Seattle Slew for the sport's top honor.

The point of dredging up 1978 again is that the possibility exists that American Pharoah could be found out this fall by an older rival, one whose record any other year would make him a bona-fide Horse of the Year candidate.

The Triple Crown and the classics in other countries are the sport's premier races. The fact not to be overlooked, though, is that they are still age-restricted events.

My vote is not going to make a difference one way or the other. However, my conscience dictates that, in honor of Seattle Slew and his body of work in 1978, my personal poll remain open a while longer.

It's only the second week of June and I'm in no rush to judge. I look forward to seeing how the next several months shake out for American Pharoah, and the older male division.

(American Pharoah photo: Courtney Heeney/Adam Coglianese Photography)