Sunday, November 7, 2010

Horse of the Year? It's no contest

So now the controversy begins.

As far as the Eclipse Award voters are concerned, the result of Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic could not have been worse.

First there is Zenyatta, who has not won Horse of the Year despite going 19-for-20. She did almost everything asked of her throughout her career, although there were disputes in the racing community as to just how good she was. Many said she faced soft fields of fillies and mares that were far inferior, and that her greatest triumph—the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic—came on a synthetic surface.

Then there’s Blame, who Daily Racing Form is already describing as “the probable Horse of the Year” based on his head victory in yesterday’s race. It’s hard to take anything away from Blame, as he was clearly the best older male horse of the year. His only loss in five starts came in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, where Haynesfield was able to slow the pace down and come home with an easy win. Since Blame beat Zenyatta yesterday, Horse of the Year should be a lock, right?

It’s not so easy. Zenyatta did win five of six races this year, one of them on dirt, so it would be misleading to say that she could run only on synthetic surfaces. If you want to argue about track surfaces, note that three of the biggest wins of Blame’s career came at Churchill Downs.

But the criteria for Horse of the Year should go beyond statistics this year. Zenyatta did something for horse racing that hasn’t been done in a long time—she captured the imagination of the fans and had people who don’t know a furlong from a fetlock talking about racing. She became a superstar in a sport that’s needed one for decades.

I’ve never heard crowd noise at a horse race like I heard on yesterday’s telecast as Zenyatta was being led to the paddock. There were 72,739 in attendance, all betting on different horses, but they all agreed on one thing—this big mare with her unique demeanor, pawing and dancing for the crowd, is one of the greatest Thoroughbreds in history.

Zenyatta did more than win a few races. She gave new life to a sport that, depending on who you ask, has been in any one of several degrees of decline.

How can she not be rewarded with Horse of the Year?

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