Vox Populi Gets It Right

Only in Thoroughbred racing can one of the greatest champions in the history of the sport share the same stage with a former $5,000 claimer from Penn National.

The first two recipients of the new Vox Populi Award, Zenyatta and Rapid Redux, were perfect examples of what the award, created by Penny Chenery, represents – the melding of popularity and achievement and bringing attention to the sport. This award is all about the place a horse holds, not in the record books, but in the hearts of the fans.

Here are two horses who put together unforgettable, history-making winning streaks, but did it on two distinctly different stages. There was Zenyatta, master thespian, performing in front of packed houses on Broadway, and Rapid Redux reciting his lines in a 50-seat theater in the West Village. The Zenyattas of the world will bring people to tears and win the Tony Award. The Rapid Reduxes also will touch people in a profound way, just on a much smaller scale.

The Vox Populi Award, unlike the Eclipse Awards, strips away the theater marquee and jam-packed lobby and focuses only on the actor’s performance and his or her ability to reach deep inside the audience and stir the emotions. Add to that the ability to showcase the sport in the brightest spotlight.

So it was that this year’s nominees for the award consisted of an array of talented horses, all of whom are leading contenders for an Eclipse Award. It did not, however, do justice to the integrity of the award to limit the inductees to Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, and Jack Nicholson when you have someone equally as talented, but less accomplished, who infiltrated people’s hearts like few before him.

This is the quality that separates the Vox Populi Award from other awards. Therefore it was reassuring to see the list of nominees expanded to include Paynter and Shackleford following a flood of protests from the public, especially those who became so emotionally involved in the life and death struggle of Paynter, who overcame overwhelming odds to battle back from colitis, laminitis, and surgery to remove an abscess from his colon.

The son of Awesome Again proved to be one of the most brilliant horses in the country following his stunning victory in the Haskell Invitational and gutsy second in the Belmont Stakes, but it was his miracle recovery when most everyone had given up hope that earned him a place among the most popular horses of his time.

Not only were Paynter and the crowd-pleasing Shackleford added to the list of nominees, the voting was opened to all horses, allowing the brilliant Australian heroine Black Caviar to receive votes, which is only appropriate, considering the presence of the freakish English star Frankel on the list. They could not make a case for Frankel receiving votes without also including a filly that had become such a renowned global celebrity as Black Caviar, who captivated an entire nation and then brought English racing fans to their feet at Royal Ascot.

Credit must be given to Penny Chenery for conceiving this award. Chenery realized that she not only owned one of the greatest racehorses of all time, but one of the most popular as well. Here was this golden mythical-like horse who came along and raised the equine genus up several notches at a time when the sport was going through a 25-year drought without a Triple Crown winner. There have been a number of great horses since Big Red, but none of them have become a part of the English vernacular as Secretariat has. After 40 years, he still is the barometer by which all great horses are measured.

Even as recently as this past October, we had Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland comment after taking out his star pitcher Justin Verlander in the ninth inning. “Normally, you don’t take Secretariat out in the final furlong.”

Chenery said of the Vox Populi award, “Horse racing already has established avenues to award outstanding accomplishments, and we certainly should honor superior performance. But achievement can be measured in many ways, and fans occasionally feel a disconnect when the horses who most impacted the public are not recognized through the traditional equine awards. The industry is long overdue in annually acknowledging the star horse who brings the most excitement and attention to the sport.  It is my hope that the Secretariat “Vox Populi” Award willbe an honor that reflects the heart and soul of racing and will help build upon the devotion the public has for a horse they love.”

Chenery has always had a close connection with the public and handled Secretariat with the class and sportsmanship befitting a horse of such stature. After four decades of memories, a full-length motion picture, an informative and entertaining website, and now the Vox Populi Award, Secretariat and Chenery continue to give back to the public and expose new generations of racing fans to the beauty of the sport, while reminding everyone what true greatness is.

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