Rachel v. Zenyatta - Two Champions and the Race for Horse of the Year

By Alex Waldrop, President and CEO of the NTRA

Zenyatta's magnificent performance in this year's BC Classic has done exactly what I (and plenty of others, I'm sure) predicted back in September -- it has provided the one possible roadblock to Rachel Alexandra being crowned the 2009 Horse of the Year. Zenyatta's victory last Saturday spurred immediate and heated debate about which female horse most deserves this year's Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.  Media participants and even fans will undoubtedly weigh in on this important decision over the coming weeks.

Of course, we all wish that this race for HOY could have been decided through a match-up on the racetrack. Already, Gulfstream and Sam Houston -- flush with cash from a $1.5 million offer from Mattress Mac and Gallery Furniture -- have put forward invitations to host a showdown next year. I am certain others will follow.  But if such a race doesn't take place, we can still enjoy the spirited debate. Check out Thursday's New York Times Sports Section where the greatness of Rachel and Zenyatta was argued with vigor and insight and a fan poll was established for Horse of the Year.

In the midst of this healthy debate, one interesting idea is also being discussed and, in a way, debated.  Do we follow the normal procedure and allow voters to make the decision on a straight, blank ballot as is done in every other Eclipse category?  Or, given the unprecedented quality of two outstanding candidates, do we simply name them co-champions.  Some voters, who are not comfortable deciding on a single 2009 Horse of the Year, seem to want a third voting option of selecting both as HOY, but, let's face it, this is essentially equivalent to naming them co-champions.

For the reasons I will explain, a democratic, head-to-head vote -- Rachel Alexandra v. Zenyatta -- is the only way to make this decision.    

First and foremost, we don't fix races in our sport and with the sports world watching intently, or at least more closely than in previous years, now is not the time to start.  The winner who wins fair and square takes home the trophy unless there is a dead heat in which case we award them both.  In racing, we don't declare co-winners because the runner-up had a tough trip or ran gallantly but lost by a nose. We should select the HOY the same way we declare the winner of every race every day.  Victory must be earned.  Historically, recipients earn Eclipse Awards by selection of the majority of those voting. Let's keep it that way.

To do otherwise is, in some ways, to manipulate the outcome. The intentions of those advocating a preemptive decision to give it to both are clearly noble, but it is nonetheless a bad step for us to take if we are serious about sustaining the integrity of the Eclipse Awards. It also changes the story from "Who is going to be HOY?" (a great place for racing in the coming weeks), to "Why did they do that?"

Even giving people the additional option to vote for both as co-winners or to split their vote has its drawbacks.  It is "management" of the voting that virtually guarantees the outcome of co-champions (effectively fixing the race and prematurely ending the debate) or has great potential to draw voters away from one candidate more than another and skew the voting in unpredictable ways (raising questions after the fact about the legitimacy of the outcome).  The law of unintended consequences says leave this process alone.

And if changes are to be considered on the eve of the vote, others are worthy of consideration. One worth considering, if not this year, then in future years, would be to add another group of votes to determine HOY -- fans.  Use text messaging and other similar technology to incorporate the fans' views into the process in some meaningful way.  One group of bloggers even suggests we donate any proceeds to horse retirement. That's a surefire way to engage the public and make the Eclipse Awards a big deal to those other than industry insiders.  Do we lose some control over the process? Sure.  Is it manageable?  Absolutely.  For those who want “out of the box” thinking, inclusion of fan input is a direction we ought to consider.

Understand that I have no vote in the Eclipse Awards balloting nor do I have any influence over any voters.  Four groups vote on the Eclipses -- the National Turf Writers Association, Daily Racing Form, racing secretaries at NTRA member racetracks and Equibase chart callers. My only interest is in preserving a fair and objective process that achieves the best result for racing.  

So, let the debate continue and let every vote be counted -- once.  And to the horse receiving more votes will go the Eclipse Award as the 2009 Horse of the Year.  That's effectively the way we do it every day at the racetrack and the Eclipse for HOY should be no different.  

More importantly, this approach sustains the HOY award as the highest in racing not only for those who received it in the past but for those who will receive it in the future. This is the legacy that we must leave to the next generation. 

But that's just my opinion.  What do you think?  Let me hear from you.

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