The closeness of the 1987 horse-of-the-year election underscores how important it is for voters to cast their ballots.
In effect, Ferdinand won the title by just one vote over Theatrical--the 8-7 edge that trainer Charlie Whittingham's colt had in the balloting by racing secretaries from most of the major tracks in the United States and Canada.
Three groups--the racing secretaries, the Daily Racing Form's staff members, and the turf writers--vote for horse of the year, and the winner is the horse favored by at least two of the factions.
The Racing Form's voters saw the election as clear-cut, giving Ferdinand twice as many votes as Theatrical. But the turf writers favored Theatrical by a two-vote margin.
Although it might seem that the election was left in the hands of the racing secretaries, it was really determined by the people who didn't vote--and there were plenty of them this time.
Of the 237 eligible voters, just 148 mailed in their ballots, the 62% turnout possibly being the lowest since the Eclipse Awards program started in 1971. Fifty-one turf reporters, 27 Daily Racing Form representatives and 11 racing secretaries didn't vote.
Some had good reason.
"I was in the hospital," said Guy Klank, the racing secretary at Thistledown, the track in Cleveland. "When I got out, my ballot wasn't on my desk and I called the TRA (the Thoroughbred Racing Assns., the group responsible for the racing secretaries' ballots) to see what happened.
"I'm on record about all this. They said that the ballot was sent out, and couldn't explain why I hadn't gotten it. But that was the day that the ballots were due back, so it was too late to do anything about it. I've voted in this for 15 years, and would have liked to have participated this time."
Aubrey Davies is the racing secretary at Exhibition Park, the Canadian track in Vancouver, British Columbia.
"I guess because of slow mail between the States and Canada, I got my ballot the day before it was due," Davies said. "I sat right down, completed it and sent it in, because I consider it an honor to participate in these things.
"I wouldn't imagine that my vote got there in time. I thought of phoning it in, but figured that that wouldn't be good enough. I know there's a rush late in the year to send out the ballots with the information on the horses from all the races that mean something, but there's just got to be a way to give us more time."
It's sad that 89 people didn't vote. Few of them live in Canada and were victimized by international mail. Few of them were hospitalized and didn't catch up with their voting responsibilities because of that.
For the sake of the Eclipse Awards and the horse-of-the-year program, it's fortunate that both Klank and Davies would have voted for Ferdinand, anyway. It was a year in which no horse-of-the-year winner would have pleased everyone, but the credibility of the election has still suffered because more than one out of every three voters failed to participate.
The three organizations are investigating the poor turnout. They should take action that prevents a repeat. Otherwise, the horse-of-the-year vote could turn into a horse laugh.
Before 1982, most of the horse-of-the-year contests were runaways. Since then, it's been more likely that the outcome will be as close as Wednesday's.
In 1982, the tie-breaker--using total votes to determine the champion--was used when the three organizations split among Conquistador Cielo, Lemhi Gold and Landaluce. Conquistador Cielo was the winner.
In 1984, another tie-breaker was required when the Racing Form backed John Henry, the turf writers voted for Slew o' Gold and the racing secretaries' vote ended in a tie between the two horses. One more vote by a racing secretary for Slew o' Gold would have given him the title, but John Henry had the most popular vote and won his second title.
In 1985, Spend a Buck controlled the vote of all three organizations, but, similar to Ferdinand, polled only 37% of all the ballots, beating out Proud Truth, 74-40.
Pat Day didn't learn that he had lost last year's money title until a couple of days into 1988. Jose Santos went on a tear Dec. 31 at Aqueduct, winning a stake race and beating out the idle Day by about $8,000. Both riders went over the $12-million mark.
"I called New York to find out if I had won the Eclipse Award (he had, for the third time in four years) and that's when I heard I didn't win the title," Day said. "It would have been nice to win, and maybe with hindsight I would have ridden someplace at the end of the year.
"Early in December, I thought about winning both titles, and if that had been possible, I probably wouldn't have taken it easy. But I was about 28 wins behind Kent Desormeaux in that category, and I would have had to ride day and night to catch him.
"Not only that, I had made a commitment to ride in Japan for a couple of days. Since it was improbable that I'd win both titles, I just backed off completely the last month."
Horse Racing Notes