Only once in the first three years of the series has a Horse of the Year been a winner on Breeders' Cup day.
It would seem that either Ferdinand or Theatrical, with their gritty wins over top competition in the Breeders' Cup on Saturday at Hollywood Park, should win this year's title.
But a sampling of turf writers from around the country at Hollywood Park Sunday indicated that there is still some sentiment for Java Gold, the 3-year-colt who was withheld from the Breeders' Cup Classic because he had been injured while running second to Creme Fraiche in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park on Oct. 10.
Several writers were asked two questions Sunday: Who is your selection for Horse of the Year? And, who do you think will actually win the title?
Most of the responses indicated that the voters are voting one way, but think that the result will be different.
In other words, the voting will be a three-horse scramble among Ferdinand, Theatrical and Java Gold.
The 250-vote Horse of the Year electorate consists of turf writers, racing secretaries from most of the major tracks and Daily Racing Form personnel. Each group votes in a block, with the winner required to carry the majority of at least two of the three.
Based on Sunday's sampling, it is not unlikely that each voting group might support a different horse. In that case, the tie-breaking procedure gives the championship to the horse who gains the most total votes.
Despite their wins Saturday, Ferdinand and Theatrical are bucking the short tradition that resulted in Horse of the Year titles for John Henry in 1984 and Spend a Buck in 1985, even though they didn't compete in the Breeders' Cup. Lady's Secret won the Breeders' Cup Distaff last year and then took national honors in a close vote with Manila, the male grass champion and also a winner on Breeders' Cup day.
Here's a look at the credentials of the three finalists:
PLUSSES--He won the Classic, doing it by holding off Alysheba by a nose at the wire, and he did it on a speed-favoring track that didn't favor his stretch-running style or Alysheba's. He also won three other stakes, all in his last three starts before the Classic, and one of them was the Hollywood Gold Cup, a major race.
MINUSES--He lost his first six starts, not winning a race until June, and wound up with 4 wins in 10 starts. Only two of his wins came in major races, the opposition in the Gold Cup was soft and and he didn't run outside California. In two of his best early races, he still lost by a nose, to Snow Chief in the Strub and to Broad Brush in the Santa Anita Handicap.
PLUSSES--He won six of eight starts, finishing second in the two others. He beat older horses twice, winning the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga and the Marlboro Cup at Belmont. He didn't compete in the Triple Crown series, but won the Travers at Saratoga impressively, beating most of the top 3-year-olds in a field that was said to be the strongest in that stake's history.
MINUSES--He didn't run against Ferdinand and Alysheba in the Classic. He didn't run outside New York. Five of his wins, including the Travers and the Marlboro, were on off tracks. While piling up victories early in the year, he didn't carry much weight.
PLUSSES--In the Breeders' Cup Turf, the last race of his career, he was passed in the stretch by Trempolino, the Arc de Triomphe winner, and then came back on to win in a powerful performance. That was his seventh win in nine starts this year, six of the victories coming in major races. The 5-year-old also survived a campaign that started in Florida in January and ended in California 10 months later, with stops in New York and Chicago along the way.
MINUSES--He ran only on grass, and some voters don't like to consider turf specialists, although All Along and John Henry won titles in recent years. In one of his losses, he failed to beat Manila, although Allen Paulson, Theatrical's owner, said he was sick that day and probably shouldn't have run.
Trainer Wayne Lukas, who increased his record Breeders' Cup win total to six with victories by Success Express and Sacahuista, gave his opinion Sunday about the Eclipse Awards, which include Horse of the Year.
"It would be a mistake (for the voters) to put too much stock in one race," Lukas said. "But if horsemen don't consider January-to-January schedules for their top horses, it's going to hurt racing. I'm not saying that a horse has to run in the Breeders' Cup (to win a title), but these races are another solid thing for the voters to look at."
Ballots go out to the voters next month and the winner will be announced a few weeks later. Although it's only a three-horse field, it's an off-the-track race that most people are finding difficult to handicap.
Horse Racing Notes