Why has the name Seabiscuit endured for so many years and why did his story
become a best selling book and popular motion picture? When people discuss the
greatest horses of all time, you rarely hear Seabiscuit's name mentioned. Other
than his victory over War Admiral in a match race and perhaps the Santa Anita
Handicap, how many of his stakes victories can you name?
The reason Seabiscuit has become one of the most beloved horses of all time
is far more about his popularity and his fascinating rags to riches story in
the times in which he lived than his racing record.
If there was a Vox Populi Award in 1938, Seabiscuit most likely would have
won a larger percentage of votes for that award than for Horse of Year, considering
he won only six of his 11 starts that year, including another match race against
a horse named Ligaroti.
It was Secretariat's owner Penny Chenery who created the Vox Populi Award in
2010 to recognize the racehorse whose "popularity and racing excellence best
resounded with the public and gained recognition for the sport." But remember,
vox populi translates to "voice of the people," so the award, while recognizing
race record, is mainly about popularity and the ability to touch people.
With this year's poll closing December 12, the candidates are Gun Runner,
Ben's Cat. Patch, Songbird, Lady Eli, and Arrogate.
From a performance and talent standpoint, Gun Runner, Arrogate, and Songbird
would stand far above Ben's Cat, Patch, and Lady Eli if this were for Horse of
the Year. But many believe Ben's Cat, Lady Eli, and Patch have a much better
chance of winning the Vox Populi Award. Ben's Cat was one of the most beloved
horses in the history of Maryland and Pennsylvania racing, who died less than a
month after his well-deserved retirement at age 11, having won numerous stakes
multiple times, including the Mister Diz Stakes six times and the Jim McKay
Turf Sprint five times. And there is Lady Eli, who not only survived the
dreaded killer laminitis, she returned to the races to win grade 1 stakes on
both coasts in 2017 after getting beat a nose in last year's Breeders' Cup
Filly & Mare Turf. She parted the racing scene after this year's Filly
& Mare Turf, in which she tore open her leg during the race, but still
tried to the end. And finally there is the aptly named Patch, who became one of
the most popular horses in the country during the Triple Crown trail, competing
and performing well despite having only one eye.
And that is why the Vox Populi Award in years to come may have a more
profound effect on the Sport of Kings than the Horse of the Year title, simply
because this is not an award of kings. It is the common folks' award that is
born of the heart and not the statistical sheet. And it is the heart that
endures, just as it has for Seabiscuit for nearly 80 years. And if racing is
going to capture the imagination of the public in years to come, it will
because of the horses that touch the heart.
Horses of the Year, as gifted as they may be, will come and go, but the
stories that will live on through the decades will be mostly about those worthy
enough in the eyes of the public to win the Vox Populi Award.
When we think of Vox Populi winner California Chrome, sure we think of his
many accomplishments in America and Dubai, but it was his meteoric rise from
humble beginnings in California-bred races and the formation of the impassioned
Chromies fan club that will sustain his memory. He was indeed a horse of the
Sure, Vox Populi winner American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown
winner in 37 years, but it was his kindhearted nature and accessibility to the
public, as thousands were permitted to visit him and lavish affection on him,
that will keep his memory alive. His owners regularly tweeted their feelings
about him and provided updates, bringing the fans even closer to the horse.
And we can say the same about the first Vox Populi winner, Zenyatta, and how
she inspired people during times of illness and misfortune, helping so many
simply by them being in her presence. Yes, she won 19 consecutive races, but
her popularity went so much deeper than that, right down to her
much-anticipated "dance" step before races. Her legacy not only will be about
her winning streak, but the number of people she brought to tears and how so
many waited for hours for her in the freezing cold at Keeneland just for a
brief glimpse and to touch her.
No one is going to mention 2013 Vox Populi winner Mucho Macho Man, winner of
the Breeders' Cup Classic, with the greats of all time, but as his story
continues to be told it will be about how he was believed to have been born
dead only to jump to his feet in front of those mourning him and dashing across
the field. And it will be about his trainer Kathy Ritvo's courageous battle with
a debilitating heart condition that left her near death until she received a
heart transplant. Together they were reborn, destined to march into history.
Has there been a horse in recent years who touched more people than 2012 Vox
Populi winner Paynter, who not only miraculously survived near-death battles
with colitis, laminitis, and surgery to remove an abscess from the cecum, he
actually made it back to the races, he winning one race, placing in grade 1 and
grade 2 stakes, and making it to the Breeders' Cup Classic. His owner, Ahmed
Zayat, who also owned American Pharoah, said of Paynter, "I just do not know
how he survived. I can't explain it. I keep living this whole ordeal it in my
dreams. I've become so emotionally attached; it's crazy. It's like I'm
obsessed. I keep asking, ‘How did he survive all these things?"
It wasn't only 2011 Vox Populi winner Rapid Redux's 22-race winning streak
that won him the award and made him a legend in the Mid Atlantic, it was being
claimed for a meager $6,250 and giving fans at smaller tracks like Charles
Town, Mountaineer Park, Penn National. Timonium, Parx Racing, Thistledown, as
well as Laurel a hero to worship.
This is what the Vox Populi Award is all about and why it is growing in
popularity each year. It strips away records, final times, and other statistics
and cuts deep into the core of what Thoroughbred racing is all about - dreams and
what all those racing tearjerker films from the 1930s to 1950s represented. We
no longer need to reach back to horses like Seabiscuit or older classic films
such as Kentucky and National Velvet to stir our emotions. We
can live them. And it is reassuring to know that those kinds of sentimental stories
that touch us so deeply will continue to be revisited every year and preserved
for all time by the Vox Populi Award.