Horse of the Year Follies

So, will it be Curlin or Zenyatta for Horse of the Year? That is the question everyone – fans, writers, horsemen – either seem to be asking or are adamant about one way or the other. Obviously, a case can be made for either one.

But I have to admit I am flabbergasted that not a single person I’m aware of has even thrown Big Brown into the mix. Now I know he’s not going to be voted Horse of the Year or likely even come close, due to a variety of reasons, many of them fueled by a dislike for the horse’s trainer and/or owner. Others simply feel he beat up on inferior competition all year.

But don’t we at least owe it to the horse and his remarkable accomplishments to place him in the same category as Curlin, who also beat up on inferior competition all year, and Zenyatta, who…nah, I’m not saying anything negative about her. Curlin supporters claim she’s never run against colts, so we’ll just use that one for the sake of fairness.

These are three special horses, and knocking one to enhance another is like chopping Thomas Jefferson’s nose off on Mount Rushmore to make George Washington look better.

I am not going to spew out the same litany of praises for Big Brown that I’ve been doing all year. Most of it falls on deaf ears anyway, and there is no further reason to sound like a defense attorney constantly telling a hostile jury what a fine, upstanding citizen his client is.

We all know that Big Brown’s accomplishments earlier in the year were unlike anything we’ve ever seen. No one has put together performances like the Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness with so little foundation and experience. The bottom line is, he never lost a race he finished, and the fact that he returned after a physically and mentally demanding Triple Crown to win both his starts, in a grade I and on the turf, shows what an extraordinary horse he was, competition aside.

But enough of that, as I can already feel the fumes beginning to build up from the Curlin fans. Everyone has been trying to figure out what happened to Curlin in that last quarter of a mile in the Classic. There are several theories, but we’re never going to know for sure.

Some feel he’s not as good as he was last year. I can’t disagree with that. Some feel he was undertrained for a 10-furlong race over a synthetic surface. I can’t disagree with that either, although I certainly don’t know the horse like Steve Asmussen does; he’s done nothing wrong so far in his training of Curlin. Asmussen, however, admits he doesn’t have a handle on synthetics yet, and the trainers that do all seem to believe you need to have a horse dead-fit to run well over it, and most work their horses at least six furlongs before a distance race. Was Curlin fit enough for a synthetic Classic with only one serious five-furlong work and a couple of slow half-mile breezes in four weeks? Beats me, but it’s at least worth throwing out there. Some feel the six-week trip to Dubai, during which Curlin made his 2008 debut under 132 pounds and then came back four weeks later in the World Cup, had a long-range effect on him. Who knows? Remember, Cigar came back from Dubai and won his first two races and then lost three of his last four.

If Curlin wasn’t the same horse as last year, why wasn’t he? We all know horses are supposed to get better at four. One factor that has not been brought out, and this pertains to Big Brown as well, is that Curlin was taken off steroids this year. Many veterinarians will tell you that has nothing to do with anything. I wouldn’t know; I’m just going by my observations, which are shared by many.

When majority owner Jess Jackson found out Curlin had been using Winstrol regularly last year, he had Asmussen discontinue its use in January in order to prove that the horse was every much a champion without drugs, which in turn would increase his appeal as a stallion. I don’t claim to know much if anything about the effect of steroids on horses. I do find it interesting, however, that Curlin, while still a magnificent horse, wasn’t quite as dominant and brilliant after being taken off Winstrol. The same with Big Brown, who still proved he was a fantastic, gutsy horse after being taken off the drug, but didn’t display the same dominance and brilliance he did when he was using it. Make of that what you wish. I am not giving an opinion, because I have no scientific basis to do so. I’m just stating the facts and what I, and most everyone, witnessed on the racetrack. Yes, Curlin won the Dubai World Cup and Stephen Foster by open lengths, but compare that competition to Street Sense, Hard Spun, Any Given Saturday, and Lawyer Ron. By late summer, he was doing just what he had to to win by narrow margins against the likes of Past the Point and Wanderin Boy.

But none of that has anything to do with who should be Horse of the Year. Conceding the anti-Big Brown movement, as misguided as I believe it is, I won’t waste anyone’s time making a case for him, as I’ve done that ad nauseum over the last several months. Perhaps one day after the dust has been swept away everyone will look back with more objectivity and realize what a special horse this was.

As for Curlin, his Breeders’ Cup Classic should not in any way be held against him. Give Jackson major kudos for going against his and his trainer’s initial gut feeling and doing what was in the best interest of the fans and the sport. Jackson and Asmussen stated emphatically they did not want to make Curlin a guinea pig over a surface no one knew anything about. But the racing world clamored for a Curlin – Big Brown showdown, and Jackson let them have it, even though it went against every principal he believed. The showdown didn’t happen, but imagine the Classic without either one of them. Curlin’s mere presence at Santa Anita made the Breeders’ Cup. When he worked between races it was like an unexpected visit from Elvis. Let’s be honest, if Curlin wasn’t in the Breeders’ Cup, would it have had anywhere near the buzz it did? Would any of the Classic horses have been given a rousing ovation in the paddock before the race, and more important, coming back afterwards in defeat?

Let’s just say hypothetically that Curlin wasn’t quite the same horse as last year for whatever reason. And let’s say he didn’t care for the synthetic surface quite as much as he did the dirt. And let’s just say he came up a bit short in that last quarter mile of the Classic. And let’s just say he was meeting far better competition than he did all year. The fact is he showed up under conditions less than ideal, gave the fans a big thrill with an explosive move on the far turn, and ran his heart out to the wire, while running the 1 1/4 miles in about 1:59 4/5, the fastest 10 furlongs he’s ever run. Two of the horses who beat him were superstars in Europe, and may have been even more formidable at this distance and on this surface.

With everything, Curlin had an unbelievable year. He paved new frontiers by going to Dubai for six weeks, attempted the near-impossible by pointing for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, which didn’t quite work out, and ventured into unknown territory by attempting to win America’s richest race over a surface on which he’d never raced. With all that, he still won the Dubai World Cup, Stephen Foster, Woodward Stakes, and Jockey Club Gold Cup, regardless of the competition. Was that insufficient to retain the crown he already wore? Did Zenyatta do enough to dethrone an existing king who did little wrong over an eight-month period?

I have to admit it is too early to state emphatically who I am voting for.

I love Zenyatta. I loved being around her before and after the Breeders’ Cup, as evidenced by the 200-plus photos I took of her arriving at Santa Anita and back at the barn following the Ladies Classic. I believe she is one of the greatest fillies in the history of the sport, because of her dramatic machine-like performances race after race, and because her running style always makes her vulnerable to pace and a freakish front-running effort. I think John Shirreffs, his wife Dottie, and Jerry and Ann Moss are four of the finest people I’ve ever met, and that is not restricted to horse racing. If Zenyatta were to be voted Horse of the Year, despite not having run against the boys, I would have no problem with it.

It’s tough trying to compare these two sensational horses. It’s just, as of now, I am trying to convince myself she did enough to knock Curlin off this throne, having run all her races but one on a synthetic surface in California, while Curlin ran well on fast dirt, slop, grass, and even on the Pro-Ride, while racing in Dubai, New York, Kentucky, and California – arguably the three biggest stages in the world for an American-based horse. Being undefeated certainly will help her cause.

So, that’s where I stand right now, which is in limbo. Whoever is voted Horse of the Year, congratulations, you deserve it. Oh yes, and that goes for Big Brown, too.


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