The Horse of the Year for 1986 will be found somewhere at Santa Anita today.
The question is, where?
--In the $3-million Breeders' Cup Classic? It's a race that includes Precisionist and Turkoman, whose handlers have Horse of the Year aspirations.
--Or perhaps in the $2-million Turf Stakes. Dancing Brave and Estrapade are both entered. Dancing Brave is thought to be the best horse Europe has seen in at least a decade. Estrapade is a male-beater who has already won twice this year against the opposite sex.
--Or even in the $1-million Distaff, in which Lady's Secret will try to win her 10th stakes race of the year.
"Those things should be settled on the race track," is the opinion of Wayne Lukas, Lady's Secret's trainer. Unfortunately, though, the five Horse of the Year candidates are not all running in the same race.
When the sun has set on the third Breeders' Cup day--seven races worth $10 million--the Eclipse Awards voters may be in more of a quandary over Horse of the Year. The electorate consists of about 200 racing secretaries, turf writers and Daily Racing Form staff members.
The last two years, the voters gave the title to horses that didn't even run in the Breeders' Cup. John Henry, selected as Horse of the Year in 1984, missed the Breeders' Cup because of an injury, and last year, Spend a Buck, winner of the Kentucky Derby, took the title even though an injury ended his career in mid-August.
After asking Lukas about Lady's Secret's credentials, a questioner must step back and let the silver-tongued trainer count the ways. But for every argument Lukas gives in favor of his gray 4-year-old filly, there are counterpoints made by trainers of the other contenders.
"What is Horse of the Year?" asks Gary Jones, who trains Turkoman. "To my way of thinking, it's the best horse.
"If Turkoman wins the Classic, I think that makes him the best horse. Lady's Secret is a nice filly, but if Turkoman only ran against the horses she faced this year, he'd be undefeated."
Ross Fenstermaker, Precisionist's trainer, points out that his 5-year-old chestnut has finished ahead of Lady's Secret twice this year. Precisionist was second, Lady's Secret third in the Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park. Two weeks later, Precisionist won the Woodward at Belmont Park with Lady's Secret second, almost five lengths back.
There are purists who believe it would be improper for a horse like Dancing Brave, no matter how good he is, to come to the United States and win the North American Horse of the Year title off just one race.
All Along, a French filly, was North American Horse of the Year in 1983, but she blew into Canada and the U.S. late in the season and reeled off easy wins against males in three of those countries' most important races.
Technically, voters are supposed to base their decision only on a horse's North American record, but no one can go to his ballot and blot out Dancing Brave's stunning performances in England--six wins in seven starts, four victories in major races and a win in the prestigious Arc de Triomphe.
"If Dancing Brave runs a big race in the Breeders' Cup and they give him the title because of just one race, then it's time to re-evaluate the system," Lukas said.
Estrapade is probably the least likely winner of the title, since it would take an unlikely scenario for her to be voted Horse of the Year. Traditionally, voters have favored male horses that run on dirt, and Estrapade has neither of those things going for her.
Still, she has won the Budweiser-Arlington Million and the Oak Leaf Invitational at Santa Anita at the end of the year--she was not extended in either race--and a win today over Dancing Brave is bound to earn supporters for the 6-year-old mare.
Even with an impressive win, Estrapade could be outvoted if Lady's Secret wins and/or if there's a victory by Turkoman or Precisionist. But one of the reasons Allen Paulson, Estrapade's owner, has paid a supplementary starting fee of $240,000 is to give his horse a chance to dance a dance that could lead to a coronation.
Estrapade will have an advantage in the nine-horse, 1 1/2-mile Turf Stakes: She likes to go to the lead immediately, and there appears to be no horse in the field that will challenge her up front. For that reason, however, there are reports from the barn of Darara, the Aga Khan's Irish-bred filly, that she might be unaccustomedly hustled early.
Turkoman and Precisionist are consistent horses, with Precisionist having a 2-1 edge in wins in major races. Precisionist has won the Californian at Hollywood Park and the Woodward. Turkoman scored his only major win in the Marlboro Cup at Belmont, also over Precisionist, who finished 1 1/2 lengths behind while carrying four more pounds. In the Classic, they will both be carrying 126 pounds.
As though the voters don't have enough problems, a turf reporter from the East posed these possibilities:
"Suppose neither Turkoman nor Precisionist wins the Classic. And suppose Dancing Brave and Estrapade both lose the Turf. And suppose somebody knocks off Lady's Secret. Could Polish Navy be Horse of the Year if he wins the Juvenile? Or could Manila win it if he wins the Turf?"
Polish Navy has won all four of his races, and a win in the $1-million Juvenile would be his third major win. Manila quit running on the dirt in March and has won five straight on grass.
The Juvenile is the first race on the nationally televised (NBC) card, with post time at 11:14 a.m. Four hours later, the voters may be no more clear headed than when they started.