As voters fill out their ballots for the Eclipse Awards, they will despair at the lack of qualified candidates for the 2002 horse of the year title. By the process of elimination, most will choose the California-based filly Azeri, who won eight of her nine starts against members of her own sex. She will thus gain the dubious distinction of being the least deserving thoroughbred ever to win the sport's highest honor.
Her immediate predecessors as horse of the year, Point Given (2001) and Tiznow (2000), may not have been superstars, but at least each was arguably the most talented horse in an undistinguished season. Azeri wasn't close to being among the 10 best horses to race in the United States in 2002.
The choice for horse of the year became almost impossible after the running of the Breeders' Cup Classic, which frequently decides the year-end championships. A trio of 3-year-olds -- Medaglia d'Oro, War Emblem and Came Home -- went into the race with reasonably good credentials and could have clinched the title with a victory. They all flopped. On the same afternoon, Azeri scored a front-running victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, finishing her campaign with a glittering record that contrasted with those of the leading males. By the time night had fallen over Arlington Park, just about everybody had conceded the horse-of-the-year title to Azeri.
Although there are no official criteria for horse of the year, tacit standards have become fairly well established. The horse of the year is usually the most talented or accomplished performer in dirt races over one mile. If no horse has distinguished himself in the benchmark tests for American horses, voters might give the honor to a grass specialist (Kotashaan, 1993; All Along, 1983), a 2-year-old (Favorite Trick, 1997; Secretariat, 1972) or a sprinter (though this has never happened). The 2-year-olds were chosen even though such youngsters -- including Secretariat -- would not be able to beat high-class older horses. Does a filly such as Azeri get the same dispensation? Does she deserve the horse-of-the-year crown for compiling an exemplary record in filly-and-mare competition, even though she might not have been able to beat the top males?
Unlike human athletic competition, where men have superior speed and strength, fillies and mares can and do beat males at the upper echelon of the sport. Because there are so many lucrative races limited to members of their own sex, they don't have to run against males often, but when they do they fare well. Females have won the Breeders' Cup Mile four times, the Sprint three times and the Turf twice.
Females are expected to beat males on the track before beating them in year-end championship balloting. Nine fillies and mares have won Eclipse Awards in categories open to males, and all have won important stakes against males. Lady's Secret captured the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga and finished second in the Woodward Stakes in 1986, when she was voted the horse-of-the-year title. The European invader All Along won four straight Grade I stakes against males to earn the supreme honor in 1983.
Azeri never ran against males, and probably couldn't have beaten them if she did. She scored most of her victories as an odds-on favorite against five- and six-horse fields in California. She ran the race of her life to capture the Breeders' Cup Distaff by five lengths at Arlington Park, where she was the beneficiary of the speed-favoring, rail-favoring bias of the racing surface. If she had taken on males in the Classic, coping with tough speed horses such as War Emblem, I doubt that she would have finished in the top half of the field.
Laura De Seroux, Azeri's trainer, argued that her filly's overall record merited the award.
"Horse of the year implies who has performed the best all year," she said. "When you're [eight for nine], that's the best performance of any horse all year, isn't it?"
This is a bit like arguing that Grand Valley State (14-0) should be playing in the Bowl Championship Series because it has a better record than Southern Cal.
If Azeri doesn't deserve to be horse of the year, who does? Nobody, really -- but it's a futile gesture to leave that line on the Eclipse ballot blank.
Medaglia d'Oro, War Emblem and Came Home all blew their chance with their poor Breeders' Cup showings. The 4-year-olds Left Bank and Street Cry ran some powerful races during the year, but each made only four starts before his retirement. It was a sorry year for U.S. horses.
There is ample precedent for honoring foreign thoroughbreds who make a single appearance in this country. Four European runners earned Eclipse Awards in the last three years on the strength of their Breeders' Cup performances. And the best horse who competed on this continent in 2002 was a European: Rock of Gibraltar.
The 3-year-old won five straight Grade I stakes in Europe, before running in the Breeders' Cup Mile, where he was victimized by the moronic ride of Mick Kinane, who tried to rally from 14th place in the final quarter-mile. The colt's phenomenal charge to finish second left no doubt that he is an extraordinary horse. If Rock of Gibraltar had won, he would be considered a prime horse-of-the-year contender, and he shouldn't be penalized just because of Kinane's bad judgment.
Rock of Gibraltar may not have ideal credentials, but he'll get my vote. It will be a rebuke to a generation of American horses so poor that Azeri could be considered a horse-of-the-year candidate.