There’s some hope for the camp of Accelerate (Lookin At Lucky), but not much. The more you talk to voters and racing fans and experts, the more it becomes clear that Justify (Scat Daddy) will be named the 2018 Horse of the Year. It’s the power of the Triple Crown, and it’s such a big force it appears that even a GI Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and a five-time Grade I winner on the year can’t even put a dent into it.
A little history: The modern day Eclipse Awards were created in 1971. Wikipedia has compiled a list of Horses of the Year going all the way back to 1887. Until the award was unified by the Daily Racing Form, The National Turf Writers Association, and the Thoroughbred Racing Associations (which has been replaced by the NTRA), several groups, including Turf and Sport Digest Magazine named their own champion. That sometimes led to there being more than one Horse of the Year.
Should Accelerate not be named Horse of the Year, trainer John Sadler and the Hronis brothers might want to take some solace in the fact that he would be joining an elite list of great Thoroughbreds who fell short.
Here’s one person’s list of the 10 best horses who were not named Horse of the Year in a year when their racetrack feats were extremely impressive.
1. Omaha (1935): The only Triple Crown winner in history not named Horse of the Year. The Triple Crown may not have meant as much in 1935 as it does today, but the linking of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont had definitely been established by then. In its coverage of the 1935 Belmont, the New York Times alludes to the fact that Omaha’s win meant he won the Triple Crown. Instead, Horse of the Year went to Discovery, who was 11 for 19 on the year and at one point reeled off eight in a row, including a 90-length win in the Detroit Challenge Cup. The pivotal race was the Brooklyn H., where he met Omaha for the only time that year. Not only did he beat him by 12 lengths, he won in a world-record time. That gave him two world records, joining Man o’War as the only horse at the time to hold more than one.
“Omaha was a disappointment to the many who backed him, but it was simply a case of a good 3-year-old not being able to beat good older horses,” the Times reported. “This is a result as old as horse racing and has seldom been reversed.”
2. Seattle Slew (1978): He won five of seven starts, including the GI Woodward and the GI Marlboro Cup H. and he was, well, Seattle Slew. In the GI Marlboro Cup, he beat Affirmed by three lengths. He also finished ahead of him when he was second behind Exceller in the GI Jockey Club Gold Cup, but Affirmed’s race was finished the moment his saddle slipped. Because he was DQ’ed in the Travers, Affirmed won only one race after the Triple Crown and it was the GII Jim Dandy. But the power of the Triple Crown carried Affirmed to Horse of the Year. Seattle Slew was, of course, Horse of the Year in 1977.
3. Native Dancer (1953): Those 1953 voters must have been a tough bunch to satisfy. One loss derailed one of the greatest horses ever. Native Dancer was 21 for 22 during his career. Unfortunately, for him, the one defeat, came in the 1953 Derby when he was beaten by Dark Star by a head. Other than that, he merely won the Gotham, Wood Memorial, Withers, Preakness, Belmont, Dwyer, Arlington Classic, the Travers and the American Derby. At least he was beaten by a deserving horse. The 1953 Horse of the Year was Tom Fool, who ran the table, going 10 for 10. In his last four starts, though, he twice faced only two horses and twice was involved in match races. No betting was allowed on any of those races.
Native Dancer was Horse of the Year in 1952 and 1954.
4. Personal Ensign (1988): You go 7 for 7 on the year and end an historic campaign with a Breeders’ Cup win so riveting that 30 years later many still believe the 1988 GI Breeders’ Cup Distaff was the single best race in the history of the series…and you’re not Horse of the Year? Personal Ensign retired after that Breeders’ Cup with a 13 for 13 record, the first major horse to retire without a loss after a full campaign since Colin in 1908. But much like Accelerate, she came around in the wrong year. The voters went for Alysheba, who son six Grade I races, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He likely would have been Horse of the Year in 1987, the year of his wins in the GI Kentucky Derby and GI Preakness, if not for losing the Classic by a nose to Ferdinand.
5. Northern Dancer (1964): Well before he became known as one of the greatest sires in history, Northern Dancer was one hell of a horse. After winning the Florida Derby, the Blue Grass, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, he returned home to his native Canada and won the Queen’s Plate. Losing out on the Triple Crown when third in the Belmont clearly cost him, as did the fact that he never ran again after the Queen’s Plate. He was beaten out by Kelso, who won his fifth straight Horse of the Year title that year.
6. Blame (2010): Yes, he only ran five times, but that was par for the course for top horses by 2010. His only loss came in the GI Jockey Club Gold Cup and he became the only horse in history to defeat Zenyatta, when he stuck his head in front at the wire of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. It was the only time the two met. But Zenyatta had cult-like status and some may have felt she deserved Horse of the Year after losing to Rachel Alexandra the year before. The end result: Zenyatta was named Horse of the Year.
7. Zenyatta (2009): You can’t do much better than Zenyatta did in 2009. She went 5-for-5 and beat males in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But there was another super filly out there by the name of Rachel Alexandra. She was also undefeated in 2009 and beat males twice, in the Preakness and GI Woodward. To some, she should have been penalized because she never took on Zenyatta because owner Jess Jackson refused to run her over “plastic” (a.k.a a synthetic surface). But at the end of the day, the voters determined she was the more super of the two super fillies. Zenyatta would have to wait one year for her Horse of the Year title.
8. Slew o’ Gold (1984): Maybe they just should have called this one a dead-heat. A winner of four straight Grade I’s before a narrow defeat in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Classic, Slew o’ Gold was expected to be named Horse of the Year, but lost to sentimental favorite John Henry. Barely lost, that is. Slew o’ Gold won the National Turf Writers Association bloc, while John Henry was the choice among the Daily Racing Form voters. Like the electoral college, total votes don’t matter when it comes to Horse of the Year. You had to win the majority of the votes among at least two of the three entities that voted. The voting among the third, the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, ended in a tie. In a tiebreaker, John Henry won because he had more overall votes. This was John Henry’s 10-year-old year and his last year of racing. He won six of nine starts, including four Grade I’s. He did not participate in the Breeders’ Cup.
9. Spectacular Bid (1979): Buddy Delp called him “the greatest horse to ever look through a bridle,” but voters in 1979 decided he was second best in the Horse of the Year vote. Affirmed won for the second straight year. Obviously, losing the Belmont S. cost Spectacular Bid. So did he his head-to-head loss to Affirmed in the GI Jockey Club Gold Cup. With an undefeated season in 1980, Spectacular Bid was a runaway winner of the Horse-of-the-Year title.
10. Exceller (1978): Seattle Slew wasn’t the only star not to be named Horse of the Year in 1978, a year when the award went to Triple Crown winner Affirmed. In the ’78 Jockey Club Gold Cup, he became the only horse in history to beat two Triple Crown winners in the same race when he defeated Affirmed and Seattle Slew. A Grade I winner on both turf and dirt, he also won the GI Oak Tree Invitational, the GI Sunset H., the GI Hollywood Gold Cup, the GI Hollywood Invitational, the GI San Luis Rey and the GIII Arcadia H. He had a sensational year. But it was the year of Affirmed.
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