California Chrome winning the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). Order This Photo
Photo by Anne M. Eberhardt
Assuming I have a vote, I will select California Chrome as Horse of the Year on my Eclipse Award ballot.
I believe I have a vote this year as I returned to the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association in the days before the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. I could call and find out for sure if I’m in, but I prefer to let it be a surprise. I’ll see if my packet shows up. If it does, I’ll put a lot of thought into each category. If it doesn't, I'll have more time to handicap Gulfstream Park and Aqueduct.
One category I have thought about is Horse of the Year. In the days after the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, I was leaning toward California Chrome as my Horse of the Year selection despite his third-place finish to Bayern in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I). While that win gave Bayern two wins in three head-to-head races with California Chrome this season, I think California Chrome accomplished more in 2014. California Chrome will be my Horse of the Year, assuming I have a vote.
I gave some level of consideration to four horses for Horse of the Year: California Chrome, Bayern, Main Sequence, and Untapable.
Untapable wins the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Order This Photo
Photo by Anne M. Eberhardt
Certainly a divisional champion, Untapable dominated the 3-year-old filly division but finished off the board against males in the William Hill Haskell Invitational Stakes (gr. I). Through no fault of her own, the year’s top older fillies and mares didn’t compete against her in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (gr. I) as Princess of Sylmar was retired before the race and Beholder missed the race because of illness. Untapable did beat Close Hatches, but she had gone off form in the previous start and showed little in the Distaff.
As the top U.S. races are contested on dirt, it takes a spectacular season for me to consider a turf horse for Horse of the Year. Main Sequence won all four of his starts—all grade I races—in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Stakes, Sword Dancer Invitational Stakes, and United Nations Stakes. That is a spectacular season and he’ll nail down divisional honors, but I liked more the accomplishments of the year’s top 3-year-olds.
That brought me to Bayern and California Chrome, a pair of sophomores. When choosing my top 3-year-old, I typically start with the Triple Crown races. California Chrome registered clear victories in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and the Preakness Stakes (gr. I). The Lucky Pulpit colt then finished in a dead-heat for fourth in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).
Bayern scored his biggest victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), but didn’t perform well in the Triple Crown races, finishing ninth in his only classic start in the Preakness.
Bayern registered three spectacular victories this season, including a 7 1/4-length victory in the Haskell. Two of Bayern’s other top efforts came in grade II races as he demolished other 3-year-olds in both the Pennsylvania Derby and Woody Stephens Stakes.
Bayern after winning the Breeders' Cup Classic. Order This Photo
Photo by Anne M. Eberhardt
California Chrome delivered a spectacular effort in winning the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I). Although he may have been my choice anyway, he didn’t hurt himself in showing some versatility in winning the Hollywood Derby (gr. IT) on turf to close out the year.
Splitting hairs, Bayern is hurt by well-beaten finishes in both the Preakness and the Travers Stakes (gr. I), where the son of Offlee Wild was 10th. California Chrome’s worst start of the year came in the Pennsylvania Derby, where he finished sixth.
I put the Triple Crown races and the Breeders Cup Classic at a level above other grade I races. California Chrome won two of those races with a third and fourth. Bayern won one of those races and had no other top-four finishes.
California Chrome won four grade I races this season compared with Bayern’s two.
Bayern and California Chrome each faced older horses for the first time in the Breeders’ Cup Classic with Bayern first and California Chrome a close third. I’m not sure how important this metric is in a year that 3-year-olds dominated their elders.
It does bother me that California Chrome had dead aim at Bayern in the stretch of the Breeders’ Cup Classic and couldn’t get by him. That is to Bayern’s credit and I certainly understand Bayern voters who use that as a deciding factor.
I was a little surprised in the days after the Breeders’ Cup to see California Chrome co-owner-breeder Perry Martin say that he thought California Chrome was out of the Horse of the Year picture.
“I really don't think we have a chance at HOY,” Martin said in an email to BloodHorse.com’s Jack Shinar. “Every good performance seems to be marginalized by the press and poor performances get promoted as proof. Since they are the voters it seems clear. Anyway it's out of my control and I'm not going to worry about it.”
Perhaps he was basing it on a post-Breeders' Cup NTRA Top Thorouhbred Poll that ranked Main Seqence first and Bayern second. Martin's comments reminded me of fans who say national media never say anything good about their teams. I think sometimes when people are too close to a situation, they only hear the negative and no one can say enough good things about their team, or in this case their horse, to drown out any criticism. I won’t say California Chrome’s 2014 season was flawless but he did enough to earn Horse of the Year.
My Horse of the Year vote, if I have one, would be 1. California Chrome, 2. Bayern, 3. Main Sequence