(Originally published in the January 22, 2011 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
By Eric Mitchell - @EJMitchellKy on Twitter
Owner Jerry Moss raised the issue of fan voting during a press conference four days prior to the Eclipse Awards ceremony held in Miami Beach, Fla., Jan. 17.
“The fans should play a greater part (in voting for Horse of the Year), and we need to figure a way to make that possible,” said Moss, who owns Horse of the Year finalist Zenyatta, who once again hooked up with Blame in a race, this one for the top end-of-the-year championship title.
Allowing fans a say in which horses get championship trophies is not a new concept. Europe’s Cartier Awards selects its champions with a formula that includes a point system based on performance in stakes races (40%) and points from votes cast by racing journalists (40%) and readers of the Racing Post and Daily Telegraph (20%). As a carrot for fans to participate, a Cartier watch is given to the randomly selected voter whose ballot includes all the names of the eventual champions.
A very unscientific poll of a half-dozen trainers, owners, and exercise riders conducted on the backside of Gulfstream Park the morning of the Eclipse Awards indicated support for the concept of fan participation.
“Wouldn’t that get people more involved in horse racing?” said trainer Jim DiVito. “We have got to figure out a way to get the younger people involved.”
Finding a way to incorporate a fan vote into the Eclipse Awards has been bantered about for at least 10 years, according to Alex Waldrop, president and chief executive officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. The barrier is concern about the quality of the fan voting block.
“A fan-selected award is a different award than a professionally selected award,” Waldrop said. “It is the difference between the Academy Awards and the People’s Choice Awards. The model is the Cartier Awards. There is a fan voting block, but there is a question of whether it is a meaningful inclusion.”
To encourage fan participation, the NTRA did create in 1999 the “Moment of the Year,” which is selected by fans voting through the NTRA website. The Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) is the 2010 “Moment of the Year.”
Trainers at Gulfstream who were asked about the quality of a fan vote agreed Waldrop’s concerns were legitimate.
“It depends on what fans you ask,” said Rick Dutrow Jr. “There are a lot who only watch the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and the Breeders’ Cup. Still, I think it would be good because the fans would feel involved.”
Baseball fans get to vote for starting players in Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game. This system has had its own problems. For example, ballot stuffing in 1957 filled seven starting positions from the Cincinnati Reds’ roster and then-commissioner Ford Frick had to intervene. Fans lost their right to vote until 1969.
Waldrop doesn’t like the baseball vote as a model for fan participation because he said the All-Star Game is all about selling tickets.
He did say the criteria for selecting year-end champions was “pretty open-ended” and may need revision by incorporating a more defined selection criteria. What that might be is up to the Eclipse Award selection committee, which includes representatives of the voting blocks—National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, Daily Racing Form writers and editors, Equibase chart callers, and racing secretaries at NTRA member tracks.
While the All-Star Game may not be the ideal model, Thoroughbred racing could learn from it. For example, a specific number of ballots used to be distributed to each ballpark. Only fans who attended games had access to ballots. Maybe fan ballots could be distributed at racetracks and offtrack betting parlors or votes given to punters with advance-deposit wagering accounts. All-Star voting is handled online now, but a card distributed at a racetrack could be printed with a specific code that gives access to an online ballot. One code, one vote. For ADW account holders—one account, one vote. At least this is a step toward qualifying the voters as fans who are genuinely following the sport.
If fan voting as part of the actual championships is out of the question, why not start a separate People’s Choice Award? Sure, it is a different award, but it gets fans involved and could include some tickets to the Eclipse Award banquet for some lucky voters. Engagement and involvement. Sounds like a win-win for horse racing.