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  • The rational case for Zenyatta

       December 14, 2010

    I'm sick to death of reading articles from horse racing writers about how Blame is the only "rational" choice for Horse of the Year and that people who believe Zenyatta should receive the award are simply sentimental idiots at best and crazy cat ladies at worst.

    There certainly is a rational case to be made for Zenyatta to win Horse of the Year. It's important to know that there is no specific criteria for Horse of the Year, but let's examine some of the factors voters should weigh.

    1. The winner of the the Breeders Cup Classic, the year's final major race
    Since the start of the Breeders Cup in 1984, only 42% of the winners of the Breeders Cup Classic have gone on to be named Horse of the Year. The Breeders Cup is not the Super Bowl or the Stanley Cup finals. It's a very important race, but a win or loss in the Breeders Cup doesn't, by itself, destroy a horse's chance at Horse of the Year.

    It's enlightening to look at some recent history around Horse of the Year and the Breeders Cup Classic:

    2007: Curlin, Street Sense, Any Given Saturday and Hard Spun were all talented 3-year olds who had beaten each other over the course of the year. Curlin won the Breeders Cup Classic and was named Horse of the Year. Note, however, that he was beaten by a nose in his only matchup with the Kentucky Oaks/Belmont Stakes-winning filly Rags To Riches. So - a single head-to-head matchup was overlooked.

    2008: Curlin won several major races before the Breeders Cup, but was defeated in that race by the European Raven's Pass. Zenyatta, meanwhile, had an undefeated season capped by a win in the Breeders Cup Ladies Classic, but lost Horse of the Year to Curlin. So - a loss in the Breeders Cup Classic was overlooked.

    2009: Zenyatta had another undefeated season, finishing the year by beating colts in the Breeders Cup Classic. Rachel Alexandra was also undefeated that season - winning several major races - but skipped the Breeders Cup. So - a win in the Breeders Cup Classic itself was overlooked.

    Can you see how frustrating this is to Zenyatta fans? Last year's argument against her was that the Breeders Cup wasn't the end-all, be-all, but this year's argument against her is that it is.

    2. Outstanding or historical achievements
    This was the reason Rachel Alexandra won last year. It's also the reason two-year olds like Secretariat or Favorite Trick have won. In other years, the Classic division didn't produce a clear winner so turf horses like Kotashaan or mares like Lady's Secret or Azeri won.

    3. The best horse in the country in a 1 1/4 mile race on the main track.
    I think this is the standard most typically used by Horse of the Year voters. I also think it's generally the correct standard. Curlin lost the 2008 Classic, but voters determined that, overall he was still the best horse in the country. It's the same reason that a horse like Point Given in 2001, who was retired before the Breeders Cup, still won Horse of the Year.

    This is Zenyatta's path to victory. Despite her narrow loss to Blame, there's still ample evidence that she, not he, was the best horse in the country at the classic distance. Don't believe me? If they ran the race again, who would you bet on?

    4. Sentiment
    Andy Beyer may not believe it, but sentiment has certainly ruled previous Horse of the Year votes:

    1984: John Henry was named Horse of the Year over Slew O'Gold because he was old and had a great story.

    1996: Cigar was named Horse of the Year for a second time even though he tailed off badly at the end of the year because he had a long unbeaten streak and was a great story.

    1998: Skip Away was named Horse of the Year despite losing to Breeders Cup Classic winner Awesome Again basically because voters realized they probably should have given him the award in 1997 over Favorite Trick.

    2002: Azeri wins Horse of the Year despite never racing against males, in part because everyone loved her late owner and also because the Kentucky Derby-Preakness winner, War Emblem, was owned by a Saudi Arabian prince in the wake of 9/11.

    So no, it's not "irrational" to support Zenyatta for Horse of the Year, and if racing writers could put aside their own petty regional biases for one second they'd realize it too. Horse racing is the only sport that tries so hard to talk itself out of a superstar. Fools.

    Posted by kris at December 14, 2010 09:28 AM

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