Horses of the Year: American schizophrenia is now a thing of the past - but maybe not in Europe

Bricks And Mortar (and appreciative jockey Irad Ortiz Jr) after winning the Longines BC Turf: he’s a clear choice for U.S. Horse of the Year, but the situation is very different across the Atlantic. Photo: Carolyn Simancik/Eclipse Sportswire/CSM

If 1971 seems like a long time ago, join the club. A quick inventory of the immediate area surrounding this desk reveals only a handful of personal relics lingering from the era: a four-volume set of the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a high school signet ring, a small knife bought in Norway for my late brother, the soundtrack album to ‘The Wild Bunch’ in vinyl.

The things we carry.

It also has been since 1971 that the best Thoroughbreds of North American racing have been recognized annually under the single umbrella of the Eclipse Awards. Prior to that, havoc sometimes reigned, with three or four entities putting forth year-end judgements that rendered the exercise more amusing than historically sound.

Of course, unless the issue is settled on the racetrack, all such awards are based on subjective opinions. That’s most of the fun. In 1949, for instance, the writers and editors of the Daily Racing Form anointed Greentree Stable’s Capot their Horse of the Year. And why not? The son of Menow won the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, and twice handled the older Coaltown. However, the readers and writers of Turf & Sport Digest chose to overlook the Capot races and elevated Coaltown to their Horse of the Year, based upon his dozen wins in 15 starts under stiff handicap weights.

(As a tiebreaker, I’ll go with Joe H. Palmer’s description of Capot in American Racehorses: “It will be noted there were chinks in his armor, notably the fact that he couldn’t be made to save himself when the pace was too fast. But, if there were any better horses, there were no braver ones in 1949.”)

In 1952, the sensible Horse of the Year vote seemed to be for One Count, winner of the Belmont, the Travers, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Anyway, that’s how the Racing Form crew saw the season’s best.

However, by then the Thoroughbred Racing Associations had begun choosing its own champions, based on a vote of the racing secretaries of member tracks. They were dazzled by the brilliance of 2-year-old Native Dancer, who won all nine of his starts, including a sweep of four stakes at Saratoga. Aided and abetted by the readers of Turf & Sport Digest, Native Dancer was their Horse of the Year. Take that, Racing Form.

By 1957, when the TRA chose 5-year-old Dedicate as its Horse of the Year and the Racing Form, with backing from Turf & Sport Digest, opted for 3-year-old Bold Ruler, a pattern was beginning to emerge. When the issue was in doubt, the racing secretaries were going to find a way to disagree with the Racing Form.

Musty backroom dealings

It happened again in 1965, a year that represented a competitive vacuum in the wake of Kelso’s five-year reign. The Racing Form settled on Roman Brother, a durable little gelding who flourished in the fall but still lost eight of 14 starts, while the TRA, along with Turf & Sport, found its Horse of the Year in Moccasin, an undefeated 2-year-old filly.

There may have been politics involved as well. Roman Brother was owned by Louis Wolfson, an early corporate raider who had little patience for the musty backroom dealings of The Jockey Club. Moccasin, on the other hand, was owned by Claiborne Farm, the epitome of the Kentucky-New York axis of racing influence.

There followed four years during which the Horse of the Year was as obvious as the sunrise. Buckpasser, Damascus, Dr Fager and Arts And Letters each took the sport to heights that did not require validation. But then, in 1970, confusion returned when the Racing Form recognized Fort Marcy, a persistent grass star who capped the year winning the United Nations, Man o’ War, and Washington, D.C. International. For some reason, his record did not impress the representatives of the TRA. They chose, instead, 3-year-old Personality, whose 18 starts included victories in the Wood Memorial, Preakness, and Woodward Stakes.

That was enough for racing executive J.B. Faulconer. The decorated U.S. Army veteran of World War II gathered the disparate interests in a locked room and did not let them out until they had agreed to a unified set of year-end honors, to be called the Eclipse Awards.

Ack Ack, a brilliant miler turned into a ten-furlong weight carrier by Charlie Whittingham, was the first Eclipse Award Horse of the Year in 1971. 

Bricks And Mortar, who defeated Anthony Van Dyck and Old Persian, among others, in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf, undoubtedly will be the 2019 Horse of the Year once votes are cast at the end of December. In between, there have been several close votes (Ferdinand over Theatrical in 1987, for instance), but there has only been one Horse of the Year.

Racing in the U.S. often suffers by comparison to Europe on several fronts. Clearly, though, when it comes to year-round honors the colonies got it right. European consensus, on the other hand, looks like schizophrenic North America, circa 1970. To wit:

Timeform’s long cherished ratings have the sprinter Battaash atop the 2019 charts with a 136, three clear of Crystal Ocean.

In the quest to identify the World’s Best Racehorse by Longines and the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, Crystal Ocean, Enable and Waldgeist have concluded 2019 in a three-way knot at 128. Battaash dwells at 125.

Then there are the Cartier Awards, to be announced on Tuesday night in London. Horse of the Year and the various division champions are determined by the objective accumulation of points in Group races and the subjective judgment of British racing journalists and readers of the Racing Post and Daily Telegraph. On points, Magical has a sizeable lead over Enable in the standings for Horse of the Year, which flies in the face of their relative positions at the end of their many encounters. But that’s nitpicking. And I’ve heard it’s always a great party.

So, congratulations to Battaash, Crystal Ocean, Waldegeist, Enable, Magical, and anything else that might pop up. By comparison, Bricks And Mortar looks a bit lonely, especially when compared to the high-class European Herd of the Year.

Jay Hovdey is senior correspondent for The Blood-Horse 

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