Andrew Beyer: No sure candidates for horse of the year

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that Bill Mott was the first trainer to capture the double of the two Classics when Royal Delta won the Ladies’ Classic on Friday and Drosselmeyer won the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday. Mott was actually the second trainer to achieve the feat. John Shirreffs did it in 2009 with Life Is Sweet and Zenyatta. This version has been corrected.

Andrew Beyer
Columnist November 6, 2011

The debate over the horse-of-the-year title, which inspired such passion at the end of the last two racing seasons, will be muted in the wake of the 2011 Breeders’ Cup. With the world’s best thoroughbreds gathered at Churchill Downs, not a single one could muster a performance that would merit the sport’s highest honor.

While the Breeders’ Cup was a compelling event, filled with exciting finishes, human drama and astronomical parimutuel payoffs, it hardly lived up to its purpose of showcasing the American thoroughbred at his best. On a day when several horses had the chance to become the horse of the year by winning the main event, the $5 million Classic, all of them flopped and finished behind the long-shot Drosselmeyer, who had not won a race of consequence in 17 months.

Andrew Beyer has been The Washington Post’s horse racing columnist since 1978 and is considered one of the leading experts on the subject. View Archive

If the great French mare Goldikova had captured the Mile for the fourth consecutive year, voters might have given her the Eclipse Award as a lifetime achievement tribute. But after years of tough competition at the highest levels of the game, she couldn’t muster her usually late kick and finished third in the final start of her career. “The years and the mileage have taken their toll,” said her trainer, Freddie Head.

The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile usually produces 2-year-olds who whet fans’ interest in the next season’s Triple Crown series, but Saturday’s race gave no indication that the 3-year-olds of 2012 will be a banner crop. Hansen led all the way to win it, but he was hanging on desperately at the finish. Runner-up Union Rags was probably the better horse; he raced wide around both turns, and the Trakus data system employed by Churchill Downs said Union Rags had traveled 78 feet more than the winner. Nevertheless, the final time of the Juvenile was ordinary; the 2-year-olds earned a moderate Beyer Speed Figure of 94 — compared with the blockbuster 108 that Uncle Mo recorded last year.

The two days of racing at Churchill Downs almost ended on a dramatic, satisfying and headline-making high note. Jockey Chantal Sutherland sent the fast Game on Dude to the lead in the Classic, chased by Uncle Mo. Trying to verify his reputation as the most talented horse in the country, Uncle Mo drew abreast of the leader on the turn. But the gutsy Game on Dude repulsed the challenge and opened a clear lead in mid-stretch. Had he won, the Classic would have had a memorable story line, with the glamorous Sutherland — one of People magazine’s “100 Most Beautiful People” — becoming the first woman to win America’s richest race. Game on Dude would have been a worthy winner, as well. He had captured two Grade I stakes in California this year and missed by a nose in another; he would have been a legitimate choice for horse of the year.

The contentious pace had taken enough of a toll on Game on Dude that Drosselmeyer came plodding along to spoil this satisfactory ending. (The outcome was especially upsetting for Sutherland because her ex-boyfriend Mike Smith rode the lightly regarded winner.) Drosselmeyer had not accomplished much since June 2010, when he won one of the weakest, slowest runnings of the Belmont Stakes in modern times. Now he is credited with winning the weakest, slowest Breeders’ Cup Classic ever.

But the race was a fitting triumph for Bill Mott, who had saddled Royal Delta to win the Ladies’ Classic on Friday. He became the second trainer to capture the double of the two Classics, after John Shirreffs did it in 2009 with Life Is Sweet and Zenyatta. Mott is arguably the best horseman in America, and he succeeds with an old-school approach to the game. Instead of pushing horses to the races that he wants to win, he lets the horses signal him when they’re ready for an ambitious undertaking. This restraint is the reason he has rarely played a prominent role in the big 3-year-old races: Drosselmeyer was his first winner in a Triple Crown event in more than 30 years of training.

Mott didn’t have designs on the Breeders’ Cup Classic until late August. Drosselmeyer had been running in lackluster fashion, but suddenly Mott observed a change in the colt. “It was like somebody had flipped a switch and he just turned it around,” the trainer said. “He was moving great. He was into his training.” So Mott entered the colt in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, where he finished second, and then continued to see the horse progress in a way that suggested he should take a shot at the Classic.

That kind of patient management stands as a contrast to the handling of the most conspicuous failure of the Breeders’ Cup, Uncle Mo. The colt’s season had been disrupted by a serious illness, and he didn’t have time to get optimally fit to run 11 / 4 miles, but Mike Repole wanted to take a shot in the Classic. He is a newcomer to the upper echelon of the sport and was guilty of something an old hand like Mott would never do: Putting his own ambitions ahead of the horse’s best interests. Perhaps he has learned a lesson after watching Uncle Mo finish 10th in the field of 12.

Despite Saturday’s debacle, Uncle Mo is a brilliant racehorse—blessed with more talent than any of the contenders for the 2011 horse of the year title. If Repole elects to keep the colt in training as a 4-year-old, and if Uncle Mo stays healthy, he could still become racing’s biggest star and make the 2012 horse of the year an easy choice.

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