Countdown to the Cup: Horse of the Year Follies

So, how crazy is this year’s Horse of the Year picture? It’s obvious no one is stepping up to claim the title that is totally up for grabs and no doubt won’t be decided until the free for all that will be the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Not only is the confusion regarding Horse of the Year reflected in the voting on the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) poll, the entire concept of the poll is as well.

Is the poll meant to determine the best horses in training at that particular time or the best horses to have competed during the year? If you were to vote right now for the poll and for Horse of the Year would you completely discount the now-retired I’ll Have Another or is he still the horse to beat based on his unmatched heroics earlier in the year? One thing is for sure, the voters are pretty much divided in their interpretation of the poll.

Through last weekend’s races, Game On Dude has 13 first-place votes, while I’ll Have Another has 12. Yet Game On Dude is ranked No. 1, despite coming off a defeat in the Pacific Classic, and I’ll Have Another is ranked No. 6, up from No. 7.

The reason for this oddity is simple. Of the 42 voters, 20 of them do not even have I’ll Have Another in their Top 10, which strongly suggests their concept of what this poll represents is totally different than the 12 people who feel it is based on who has accomplished the most over the course of the year.

And then there are the six voters who have I’ll Have Another ranked sixth, seventh, or eighth. That is not about rules interpretation. These voters no doubt consider his accomplishments in their rankings, but feel winning the grade I Kentucky Derby, grade I  Preakness, grade I Santa Anita Derby, and grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes is not worthy of a higher ranking, even though there are horses ranked above him who have not won a single grade I race. I’ll Have Another also is tied for the most wins (four) on the Top 10 list and is the only undefeated horse of those with more than two starts.

Perhaps the voters go strictly by handicapping and feel I’ll Have Another’s competition, times, and other handicapping criteria do not measure up to the horses who have accomplished less in terms of grade I wins. But when it comes to competition, the horses I’ll Have Another defeated have gone on to win the Belmont Stakes, Travers, Haskell Invitational, and Pacific Classic, as well as the Swaps Stakes, Jim Dandy, Ohio Derby and Iowa Derby, and there is a good chance the Super Derby will be added to that list.

I don’t take issue with anyone’s rankings, as once again it is a matter of interpretation. I just don’t know what to make of the poll itself, considering there are no guidelines and the fact that it is perceived so differently by the voters.

But that is the nature of polls in general, and it is more important now to look beyond that and focus on the Horse of the Year picture.

In one person’s opinion, I’ll Have Another is the clear-cut Horse of the Year until someone jumps up and takes it away from him. Game On Dude had his chance to at least be considered in the Pacific Classic, as did Mucho Macho Man in the Woodward. Both ran great races, but failed to win. If either should win the Classic it will be up to the voters to decide whether their body of work this year is impressive enough to overtake I’ll Have Another.

Fort Larned has put together back-to-back scores in the Cornhusker and Whitney, both in 1:47 and change, and could be pointed for the Jockey Club Gold Cup. He’s never been 1 1/4 miles, but won the grade III Skip Away Stakes at 1 3/16 miles in a fast 1:53 4/5. Ron the Greek has won two of the biggest stakes – the Santa Anita Handicap and Stephen Foster – and was second in the Whitney and Oaklawn Handicap, which puts him right in the thick of the Horse of the Year race. If either of these two should win the Gold Cup they would be in a good position to nail down the title in the Classic, especially Ron the Greek, who is already a grade I winner at Santa Anita.

Two other talented horses likely pointing for the Classic are Woodward winner To Honor and Serve and the consistent Flat Out, who is looking to return to his form of last year, when he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Suburban and was second in the Whitney and Woodward. His second in the Monmouth Cup and third in the Whitney in his last two starts coming off a five-month layoff suggests he is rounding back into form. With To Honor and Serve possibly running next in the one-mile Kelso and Flat Out looking a repeat in the Gold Cup, they are going to have to do something extraordinary to overcome their lack of production the first half of the year.

Another horse who could be dangerous in the Classic is the rejuvenated Richard’s Kid, but his resume this year does not appear to be strong enough to put him in the Horse of the Year picture.

On the 3-year-old front, most everyone is gone and only Alpha has the credentials to even be mentioned in the same category as the aforementioned older horses. With victories in the Gotham, Jim Dandy, and a dead-heat win in the Travers, he likely would need a victory in the Pennsylvania Derby and the Classic to be considered Horse of the Year material. The big question with Dullahan is which Breeders' Cup race he will be pointed for. Voters will be reluctant to give Horse of the Year to a horse who won only on a synthetic track, but if he can do something huge on Breeders' Cup day, his Pacific Classic victory over Game On Dude will go a long way in getting him votes.

Then of course, we have the budding superstars Questing (3-year-old filly) and Point of Entry (turf male), who could catapult themselves right into the Horse of the Year picture with an impressive score in September and a follow-up victory in their respective Breeders’ Cup race. As of now, we’re not sure which path Wise Dan will be taking. He is so versatile he would be tough going for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Mile, or Dirt Mile, but by passing up the Woodward, it would appear as if he’ll head to the Woodbine Mile and remain on the grass. We’ll see where he winds up on Breeders’ Cup day, but it is important to note he has never run on a dirt track other than Churchill Downs, which is very friendly to grass horses.

So, take your pick. Who knows who will be peaking on Breeders’ Cup day? We could have another Drosselmeyer and no one would be shocked. One thing we should all be in agreement with is that it is going to take a victory in the Classic and possibly one other race or two spectacular performances by Questing or Point of Entry to take Horse of the Year honors away from I’ll Have Another. What this horse accomplished and who he defeated in the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness should not be overlooked because his career was cut short by injury or because of his trainer’s suspension and bad press. We just don’t have enough facts to let that overshadow the horse’s record. Yes, I’ll Have Another’s retirement has opened the door, but someone is going to have to bust down that door and not just sneak in by default.

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