In 2011, the mare Havre de Grace (pictured) was a landslide winner for the Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year. She won three Grade 1 stakes, including a victory over males in the Woodward Stakes, and was a credible fourth when she challenged the boys again in the Breeders' Cup Classic. This year, however, the race for Horse of the Year is more wide open. It just might be a photo finish. We look at the top contenders and the arguments for and against each.
2012 record: 9 starts, 5-1-1; $3,598,455 Pros: He won the big one, the Breeders' Cup Classic, and did so in convincing fashion. He finished with two Grade 1 victories among his final three races, having also won the Whitney Invitational at Saratoga. His Classic win earned a 117 Beyer speed figure, according to Daily Racing Form, matching the best figure by any horse in 2012. Cons: Two Grade 1 wins fall a bit short of the norm for Horse of the Year. Fort Larned was a latecomer to the highest rungs of racing, having started the year running in ungraded stakes. Losses in the Stephen Foster and Jockey Club Gold Cup suggest the top handicap runners were taking turns beating one another rather than producing a clear-cut leader of the division. Bottom line: He was the best at year's end but not throughout the year as a whole.
I'll Have Another
2012 record: 4 starts, 4-0-0; $2,629,600 Pros: Perfection is a good place to start. I'll Have Another beat all comers on the Triple Crown trail before he was retired when he suffered a tendon injury in training the week of the Belmont Stakes. He beat the visually stunning Bodemeister twice, in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. Cons: Well, he was retired prematurely. Is half a season, as good as it was, enough for a championship season? He gets a few blotches of the stain from trainer Doug O'Neill's suspension for exceeding CO2 levels. He never was the favorite in any race, meaning there were doubters to the very end. And he never tested himself outside the 3-year-old division. Bottom line: If Horse of the Year were for overall impact and popularity, he would be the top candidate. The Eclipse Award voters, however, demand a bit more on the track. I'll Have Another's abbreviated season will be his undoing.
2012 record: 5 starts, 5-0-0; $1,867,000 Pros: Another case of perfection. The 2-year-old colt capped his undefeated season with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile to stamp himself uncontested champion of his division. And it's not unprecedented for a 2-year-old also to bring down top honors. It has happened four times before, most recently Favorite Trick in 1997. Cons: Shanghai Bobby won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile by a hard-fought head. A win's a win, but it wasn't the kind of closing statement a 2-year-old needs to gather Horse of the Year votes. The previous 2-year-olds who won Horse of the Year (Favorite Trick, Secretariat in 1972, Moccasin in 1965 and Native Diver in 1956) each won at least seven races en route to the championship. Bottom line: Shanghai Bobby will take home divisional honors but doesn't have a deep enough résumé to cross over for Horse of the Year, too.
2012 record: 7 starts, 4-2-0; $2,009,251 Pros: She won the Eclipse Award as top 3-year-old filly in 2011 and followed up with an even better season as a 4-year-old, so she has gravitas. She won the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic for the second straight year. She won at four different racetracks. And she didn't completely duck the boys, having given it a go in the Dubai World Cup in March (a ninth-place finish). Cons: Well, that trip to Dubai hurts. She was found lacking against the best. And she lost twice within her division, too. Then there's the fact she's not a shoe-in as top older female, as Groupie Doll (five graded wins) can make a strong argument. Bottom line: Though Horse of the Year has gone to three straight females (Havre de Grace, Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra), Royal Delta probably needed to run in the Breeders' Cup Classic instead of the Ladies Classic to continue the streak.
2012 record: 6 starts; 5-1-0; $2,622,037 Pros: As consistent as they come, Wise Dan was only a nose — second behind Ron the Greek in the Stephen Foster — from an undefeated season. He closed with a marquee victory in the Breeders' Cup Mile. His five wins were all in graded stakes (three Grade 1), and all were clear. He smallest margin of victory was 1-1/2 lengths over former Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom. His 117 Beyer in the Ben Ali in April matched Fort Larned for the top speed figure of the year. Cons: He did not win on dirt, and he did not win at 1-1/4 miles, the traditional classic North American distance. Four wins were in turf miles, and the fifth was 1-1/8 miles over Keeneland's all-weather surface. That won't sit well with the stodgiest of horse racing blue bloods. Bottom line: Wise Dan might fall short of some historical standards, but he was the most brilliant performer among the Horse of the Year candidates. Yes, a miler can win. It's a sign of the times.