Head Turner - By Eric Mitchell

 (Originally published in the November 13, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @EJMitchellKy on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell

Following an emotionally charged Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), the question for those deciding Horse of the Year comes down to this: On what side of the “head” do you stand?

On one side is the victor Blame. He is a brilliant son of Arch who has won six graded stakes, three grade I stakes this year. His record for 2010 is four wins and a second in five starts and earnings of $3,751,467. Most importantly, he beat Zenyatta on the biggest stage in the biggest race.

And then there is Zenyatta, who had her phenomenal 19-race winning streak ended by a head against a very deep field of challengers that included six grade/group I-winning colts. The Churchill Downs track had not been kind to closers during much of the Breeders’ Cup weekend, but she was there at the end, fighting with every desperate stride to the wire.

So which side of the head deserves to win Horse of the Year?

For the supporters of Blame, it comes down to the central theme at the heart of racing. The horse that crosses the wire first is the best horse. Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider’s homebred had a well-mapped-out plan for the year that ended spectacularly in the Classic. The colt did almost everything he was asked and knocked out some great horses along the way—Quality Road, Haynesfield, Rail Trip, Musket Man, and Battle Plan to name a few. His 2010 campaign—and Horse of the Year title is all about the 2010 campaign—reached its pinnacle in the Classic when he beat one of the sport’s brightest stars who not only had won 19 consecutive races but has the 2009 Classic against the boys notched on her girth.

Seth Hancock, president of Claiborne, spoke as a sportsman during the Classic press conference when he said: “Well, I thought the battle for Horse of the Year was fought about a half hour ago, and Blame won it. I mean, she’s a great horse, Zenyatta is. But she had her shot to get by, and she didn’t do it. So I don’t think you can vote for her. I don’t know who else you could vote for.”

This is nothing like 2009’s contentious Horse of the Year battle in which the two contenders never met. Blame and Zenyatta faced off on the track and one got beat.

If it were only that simple.

On the other side of the head is a mare who, besides putting together a record-tying 19 consecutive wins, had claimed five consecutive grade I races in 2010. The biggest knock against her all year is that she raced almost exclusively in California against her own sex, in races she has won multiple times, and against relatively small fields. The quality of the competition she beat as compared with the tremendous ability she possessed was always suspect. Why wasn’t she challenged more? Why didn’t she at least take on the boys in the Pacific Classic Presented by TVG (gr. I) or the Goodwood Stakes (gr. I), which was run the same day as the Lady’s Secret Stakes (gr. I) at 11⁄8 miles at Oak Tree at Hollywood Park. Zenyatta had won three grade I races earlier in the year at 11⁄8 miles—the Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap, the Apple Blossom Invitational Stakes, and the Vanity Handicap.

What the close second in the Classic showed, however, is that she clearly possessed equal ability and class as all the colts in the field, and she beat Quality Road, Haynesfield, Paddy O’Prado, Lookin At Lucky, Fly Down, and six others. She also energized a racing nation and turned casual observers of horse racing into yelling, screaming, sign-toting fanatics. Zenyatta took horse racing into the mainstream media, grabbing the attention of Oprah and “60 Minutes.”

Well why not share the title, as was discussed last year? Forget it. The best argument for splitting the Horse of the Year came last year when the two candidates ran in different divisions. This time, one won and one lost. There won’t be a shared title and a lot of voters will be torn, looking at the possibility that a horse with 19 consecutive wins could get passed over for a third time as Horse of the Year.

Voters have a choice to vote with their heads or vote with their hearts, and while experienced racetrackers and zealots on both sides will argue until they’re crimson, there is no right answer. 

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