By Jack Shinar
Striking parallels exist in the current debate between supporters of
Blame and Zenyatta over Horse of the Year and the decision confronting
voters in 1996 with Cigar.
Like Zenyatta, Cigar was assaulting the hallowed mark for consecutive
victories held by Citation. And like the big mare, Cigar was beloved by
fans. He liked people and loved the attention he received and the click
of the cameras. He was a media sensation, attracting thousands of new
fans who had never cared about racing, as well as the admiration of
those who did. The grandstands were packed and Cigar's every race was
eagerly anticipated on the national stage.
He would eventually match Citation's record in 1996, although a couple
of his races weren't what people considered worthy tests. Doesn't that
With a chance to surpass Citation, he was entered in the Pacific
Classic. He was expected to easily win as the post-time favorite at 1-10
odds against a short field of five seemingly overmatched opponents.
Instead, one of them, Dare and Go, dispatched him rather handily that
day at Del Mar (pre-poly so it counted) to end the streak.
Cigar ran twice more before the Breeders' Cup Classic, beating a so-so
field in the Woodward and dropping a head's decision to Skip Away in the
Jockey Club Gold Cup. Though his aura of invincibility was gone, he was
odds-on in the Classic, held that year at Woodbine. He fell farther
back than usual in the early stages but charged five wide around the far
turn. He mounted a final valiant charge that came up a neck short
behind Alphabet Soup, who won by a nose over Louis Quatorze.
Cigar's year ended with a pair of important victories early in the
season, the Donn Handicap and the Dubai World Cup (which as a foreign
race, should probably have not been considered). But after winning the
non-graded Mass 'Cap and something called the "Citation Challenge" at
Arlington Park to tie the mark in July, he ended his career with losses
in three of four starts.
There were some other strong contenders for Horse of the Year, led by
Alphabet Soup. The California gray had captured the San Pasqual, Pat
O'Brien, San Antonio and Goodwood handicaps, though he was
controversially disqualified from his Goodwood win and placed third. And
he was the best horse in the Classic.
But voters didn't blink, awarding Cigar Horse of the Year honors for the second year in a row.
Fifteen years later, Zenyatta may not merit the same kind of respect
from the turf writers. Though she won 19 races in a row in undefeated
style and left Cigar and Citation well behind, her 13 grade I victories
-- including five this year going into the Classic -- are not considered
worthy enough by many.
One blogger on this website says the decision is easy: Blame beat
Zenyatta in their only meeting; he's horse of the year. A second blogger
here says it's a question of mind or heart. If you go with your mind,
you take Blame. If it is from the heart, you side with Zenyatta.
I say baloney to both of them.
Zenyatta is the most influential Thoroughbred in American racing since
at least Cigar. Taking into consideration all that she has meant to the
sport, which has never been in more dire circumstances than at this
time, isn't being emotional. It's doing our job. To simply parse PPs and
award this honor to Blame because he won the Classic by a few inches
isn't being objective. It's wearing blinders.
Anyone can see that Zenyatta was the best horse in the Classic and she
was unfortunate not to hit the wire first. Blasted by a kick-back that
she was unaccustomed to over those plastic tracks in California, she
fell far, far back -- 15 lengths, 20 lengths -- and was still showing
nothing as jockey Mike Smith began to ask her on the backstretch. On the
far turn, though, she dug in. Against this top-quality field on a cuppy
racetrack she clearly wasn't handling, Zenyatta fought through traffic
and made up about a football field while overcoming the dirt in her
face, a pronounced track speed bias, and slow fractions. She missed by a
In 35 years of following racing, it ranks as one of the two or three grittiest efforts in a major event that I have witnessed.
Blame won and he's a tremendous horse. But everything went right for him
on his home track that day. The Classic victory, and his light record
coming into the race, do not merit Horse of the Year in the face of
It should also be noted that in 15 of 26 renewals of the Classic, HOY
voters passed over the winner of this supposed championship event for
another horse they felt was more deserving.
Racing fans have clearly expressed their sentiment for Zenyatta. The
polls I've seen all run at least 3-1 in her favor. The racing industry,
deep down, knows she deserves the award as well and will look foolish in
the eyes of the public if they don't honor her this time. Voters will
feel the pressure to go with Blame and Claiborne Farm. But when the
announcement is made at the Eclipse Awards in January, let's hope they
did the right thing.