A Seminal Moment for Horse Racing – by Todd Schrupp

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On Monday, January 17th, in the Main Ballroom at the beautiful Fontainebleau Hotel and Resort in Miami Beach Florida, Thoroughbred Racing's best will be honored with the Eclipse Awards. The highlight to the evening will be the final award given out, Horse of the Year, and this year's announcement will say a lot about where Horse Racing is, in its attitudes and where it is going. For the third consecutive year Zenyatta is a finalist for Horse of the Year, having finished second in the final vote count the two previous years. There is the real possibility she may leave the game without being recognized as the best horse in America at any point in her career. That's right, a horse that is on most lists as one of the best of all-time may go out as not being the best overall thoroughbred in 2008, 2009 or 2010. Editor of the Daily Racing Form Steven Crist put it this way when revealing how he was going to vote in the Horse of the Year category - “Zenyatta is on a short list of the best fillies of the last 50 years...She is a filly for the ages and the Horse of The Last Three Years Combined, but not 2010.” How did we get here? How is it possible that voters like Mr. Crist could look at the year to year achievements of a horse like Zenyatta and for three consecutive years not find a reason to vote for her as Horse of the Year? Part of the explanation is in the voting process, most notably who and how many get to vote. The Eclipse Awards are often referred to as the 'Oscars' of Thoroughbred racing. In perception and in regard by those who want to win an Eclipse Award that may be true, but when it comes to the machinations of the voting process they are worlds apart. Consider these numbers for a moment: the Oscars are decided by a voting bloc of nearly 6,000; in fact, music's top awards, the Grammys, have nearly twice the number of ballots mailed out; 11,000. For the 2009 Eclipse Awards 271 ballots were mailed out, from that, 232 voters took the time to vote. (Special Note: Only 229 votes were cast for Horse of the Year in 2009 as two voters abstained and another decided to vote on the other categories, but not Horse of the Year.) In an industry that employs tens of thousands of people, has millions of fans, and accounts for billions of dollars in pari-mutuel and agricultural economic impact nationally, horse racing has entrusted 232 people to decide which is the best thoroughbred racehorse in America. The fortunate few are members of the association formally known as the National Turf Writers, the Daily Racing Form Writers and Editors, Equibase Chart Callers and Racing Secretaries at National Thoroughbred Racing Association member racetracks. The only guideline voters are given in determining a Champion in any category for the Eclipse Awards is that the horse they vote for must have started at least once in North America. Longtime DRF International Racing Correspondent Alan Shuback has written he will take advantage of that and vote for Goldikova as Horse of the Year, failing to see Zenyatta or Blame as deserving Champions for Horse of the Year in 2010. When people are involved, and they always are with awards, no matter the size of the voting bloc there will always be inherent biases or preferences from voter to voter. However, when the voting bloc is so limited those biases can be very pronounced and cumulatively can have a devastating effect on a legitimate horse's chance to be named Horse of the Year. One voter might feel a female racehorse like Zenyatta has more to prove because she races primarily against other females, or another might not like the fact she raced primarily on synthetic tracks, or mainly in California, or her times were not spectacular, or her margins of victory too small, or her speed figures not big enough, the perceived negatives go on and on. I find it fascinating in this year's debate for Horse of the year, where most consider it to be between Blame and Zenyatta (Shuback's opinion not withstanding), most voters not voting for Zenyatta who have written about how they will vote, start their case by making the argument against Zenyatta not extolling the virtues of the horse they are voting for. The case for Zenyatta being named Horse of the Year in 2010 can be made statistically and re-enforced by the aura and interest that surrounded her. In fact, I thought that combination was so powerful she would not be denied Horse of the Year again. I am no longer certain. The first indication the Horse of the year vote might not go Zenyatta's way was when Andy Beyer, who has been voting on the Eclipse Awards for 40 years, wrote a column on the Horse of the Year debate in the Washington Post entitled, “Zenyatta's fans disagree, but Blame is Horse of the Year.” Fair enough, but when reprinted in the DRF the very same column was entitled, “Rationally speaking, Blame is Horse of the Year.” How can you have an honest and open debate when one side is being referred to as irrational? On that subject, the most creative reason to vote against Zenyatta has emerged in recent days and it involves weight. The theory goes like this, Blame not only beat Zenyatta by a head, he did it while carrying THREE pounds more than she did. Undeniably true, but if Blame had lost a photo to Zenyatta would that same group of voters be willing to vote for Blame because they felt the extra weight would have cost him the victory? Did any of those voters discredit 2009 Horse of The Year Rachel Alexandra's win in the Preakness for the weight break she received? Or how about Blame's five pound weight break when he narrowly defeated Quality Road in the Whitney? Please, enough already. Either you get it or you don't. If you followed Zenyatta year to year or just this year, you know she is long overdue to be honored as 'Horse of the Year.' There is no denying Blame has a great resume, one that includes providing Zenyatta with her only defeat. However, when Zenyatta critics refer to her only defeat as one of the best performances of her career and you combine that with more starts than her fellow finalist, and more Grade One victories, then it is not irrational to say she was the best horse in America in 2010. TVG will provide live television coverage of this historic Horse of the Year announcement, and I hope you will tune-in. No matter what the result, in true Zenyatta fashion she has changed Thoroughbred Racing for the better. After all of the intense debate about Horse of the Year the two previous years the major Eclipse Award voting bloc formally known as the National Turf Writers is now the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters. Starting next year there will be more opinions and diverse views in the voting bloc. It is my hope one day fans will play an even greater role in Eclipse Award voting, not just for specialized categories. Until then, whether or not Zenyatta is honored as 'Horse of the Year' will not change what most of you already know; Zenyatta was a champion like few of us have seen or will ever witness again.


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