AND THE WINNER IS…
By Robert Geller
EL PASO, Texas (Jan. 21) – Immediately after the announcement last Monday night of the 2011 Eclipse award winning Horse of the Year, my Android was running hot with texts from female fans, the majority of which simply read, “Havre de Grace!” The third successive filly or mare to receive such an honor, following on from Rachel Alexandra (2009) and Zenyatta (2010), Havre de Grace continued a developing trend that has been great for racing.
My British-born racing friend Denise, one of the first to message me, captured the proud sentiment, in her perfunctory text, “FILLIES RULE.” Along with her American-born husband Larry, they own horses under the name of “UKUSA Stables” and have experienced the thrill of being local award winners. In 2010, the New Mexico Breeders’ Association voted their Cali Baby the state’s Top Older Filly or Mare and the N.M. Horsemans Association named Cali Baby its Horse of the Year. “Cali” as they call her, has outshone the males in their barn, making Denise’s delight over Havre de Grace more meaningful than simply a dedicated fan.
Awards mean more to an owner than most since the emotional connection has been backed up by solid investment. Deep pockets are nearly always needed to garner a galloper of national prominence, let alone national honors, and it’s usually after a fair number of tries at acquiring “the one”. For the late Jess Jackson, Rachel Alexandra (2009) followed in the footsteps of the classy Curlin (2007-08) and for Jerry Moss who won the 2005 Kentucky Derby with Giacomo, ownership reached dizzying heights once the mighty Zenyatta hit the scene, eventually awarded Horse of The Year (2010), the key word being eventually.
The Rachel-Zenyatta debate rages on long after the awards have been handed out. Coastal bias, right horse, wrong year, the “she hasn’t beaten anything” line, you name it, I’m sure you’ve heard it all by now and no doubt know full well which side of the ledger you reside on that one. Just for the record, I am one of those crazies who would have voted for Zenyatta way back in 2008 instead of Curlin whom I was totally behind in 2007 but not sold on for repeat honors.
The 2009 Preakness Stakes win by Rachel Alexandra and the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic win by Zenyatta was each spectacular and it was hard not to have fallen in love with both fillies. The Preakness Stakes was the vital cog in the wheel that spun the Rachel argument, triumphing against the boys, not quite your everyday occurrence. As enamored as 2009 voters were with Rachel Alexandra, spare a thought for 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, especially in light of this year’s Top Male 3-Year-Old title having gone to 2011 Kentucky Derby winner, Animal Kingdom.
A Kentucky Derby victory, Preakness Stakes second and unplaced Belmont Stakes effort were sufficient to get Animal Kingdom ahead of Shackleford, who not only turned the tables on him at Pimlico but also bested him at Belmont. Mine That Bird had won the Kentucky Derby, was runner-up to subsequent Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness Stakes and after a premature move in the Belmont Stakes, wound up a weakening third to Summer Bird, who sat out Pimlico and bested him in the category.
The image of Mine That Bird took a beating in the fall of 2009 when he had soured, seemingly not the same horse. His losses erased the merit of his Triple Crown achievements and elevated the status of Summer Bird. The form of Shackleford this fall did not nose-dive quite as dramatically but the ‘what have you done for me lately argument’ did him no favors either. The saving grace this year for Animal Kingdom may well have been being sidelined and thus absent from the Breeders Cup, keeping his shiny image free from tarnish. Let’ s not forget that Rachel Alexandra’s subtle slip in fall form was nipped in the bud by avoiding the big dance altogether, unlike Zenyatta.
Let’s face it; horses are like stocks. Timing is everything, especially knowing when to get in and when to get out. Despite all the gains that have gone beforehand, it is a matter of not holding on too long for the losses to start piling up or else that lucrative stud fee may begin to drop just like a sliding stock, or in the case of Kentucky Derby winning geldings such as Funny Cide and Mine That Bird, reputation.
We will never publicly know how much the failure to land the Horse of the Year title in 2009 fueled the decision by the Moss’ to bring Zenyatta back in 2010, but the mare never rested on her laurels. It was a courageous and sporting choice that enabled the public to maintain their love affair with Zenyatta. Clearly a healthy, happy horse is necessary for such an option and in her case she was both. Zenyatta never lost a step. Even when she came up one step short of a repeat success in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, her performance was breathtaking. The gamble by her classy connections to risk defeat had paid off.
The 2011 Horse of the Year decision felt far less intense. Aside from the lack of a dominant nominee, Zenyatta was a tough act to follow. Havre de Grace did capture my attention but was unable to hold it for quite as long. Similar to Zenyatta, one of her most memorable races came in defeat. I was glued to the television monitor as Havre de Grace and Blind Luck went nip and tuck the length of the stretch in the Grade2 Delaware Handicap last summer. Ironically, it was Havre de Grace who would go on and Blind Luck who would later wind up on the shelf. A top three finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic would have meant added polish to her plaque, but Havre de Grace was not a controversial choice by any means.
More and more we are seeing U.S. owners try their star fillies against males in open company. This is nothing new in horse racing and in fact quite common in Australia where I grew up. When a filly or mare is in the zone, there is nothing quite like it. Three-time Melbourne Cup winning legend Makybe Diva, the undefeated world champion sprinter Black Caviar and repeat Cox Plate hero Sunline are all glowing examples. Why, the Arc de Triomphe was a clean sweep for the girls this last year so maybe my friend Denise is right after all, fillies really do rule.
The only horse I have been a part owner of was a filly, Asummerforwindy, holding a 10 per cent syndicate share in the chestnut. Asummerforwindy was no world-beater but she always tried her heart out. Syndicate manager Victor the Predictor insisted I keep the nicely engraved black slab desk-sized Owner of the Week Award that we received back in the day. It was a loving gesture that I gladly accepted.
No matter what level of competition, big or small, horse owners cannot wait to deck their walls with win photos and racing paraphernalia. I was no exception, locating strategic spots, always ready to redesign in the event of a further unexpected success. I can only imagine what shrines of dedication owners of a Horse of the Year might assemble.
As exciting as awards may be, let’s keep things in perspective. Awards add further accolades to those that have already achieved. The downside is the tendency to dismiss the worth of a horse’s achievement since comparisons truly are odious. Yes, opinion drives our industry but most argument is settled on the track and not by committees. Add in seductive ingredients like prestige and celebrity cachet that trump talent and you may find others are good at talking you out of your own perception when it comes to best of the best discussions.
This leads me to the winner of the 11th running of the Grade 1 Championship at Sunland Park, Cold Cash 123, named the 2011 American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) World Champion. His New Mexico victory was a dominant one in every sense and put his claim to the 2011 title over the edge. It was especially rewarding for Sunland Park management who for a decade have been raising the quality of quarter-horse competition to the highest level. Cold Cash 123 is the only World Champion I have had the privilege of announcing and hopefully not my last. The question is, will I know it at the time.
<The only announcer in track history, Robert Geller begins his 17th season at Emerald Downs on Friday, April 13>