Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that Tiznow, the horse of the year in 2000, had a 3-for-6 record that year. Tiznow had a 5-for-9 record in 2000. It also said that since 1936 only three horses have won the horse of the year title after scoring all their victories on turf. Actually four horses have accomplished this feat. This version has been corrected.
After Mucho Macho Man won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, most commentators declared that the turf specialist Wise Dan would earn his second Horse of the Year title. Mucho Macho Man didn’t have enough other accomplishments to take the honor, but by trouncing Game on Dude, he had eliminated that gelding’s claim to the championship. The last horse standing was Wise Dan, winner of all six of his starts on grass.
As a voter for the Eclipse Awards, I take my ballot seriously, and I fretted for weeks over the choice until I saw the light: Mucho Macho Man should win the sport’s top honor. His credentials may be imperfect, but Wise Dan’s claims to the title are spurious.
Knowledgeable handicappers know that Wise Dan’s victories this year were unimpressive. People with an appreciation of racing history know that horses with his specialty should not be an American champion. And fans should not want to honor a horse whose owner and trainer ducked tough challenges all year.
Of course, many voters will decline to honor Mucho Macho Man after a year in which he made five starts and won just two races. The 5-year-old’s campaign was disrupted by a bacterial infection and a virus early in the year, and he didn’t hit top form until September, when he captured the Grade I Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita by 41 / 4 lengths. He used that race as a springboard to win a photo finish in the Classic, where he defeated an all-star field that included eight Grade I stakes winners, four of them with earnings of $3 million.
His overall record was thin by the standards of the Horse of the Year, though Native Dancer was honored after winning a single stakes race in 1954. However, Eclipse Awards in various categories are annually bestowed on horses solely off the basis of a Breeders’ Cup victory. No voter will hesitate to make Groupie Doll the champion female sprinter despite her 2-for-5 record in 2013, because she won the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. One of her rivals in this category had a 6-for-6 record, but Groupie Doll will get the trophy because she beat the best in the definitive championship race. As did Mucho Macho Man.
Any case for Mucho Macho Man must also be a case against Wise Dan, and that case is rooted in history. America’s most important races are stakes on the dirt at longer distances: 11 / 8 miles and up. Those races almost always determine championships despite the excellence of runners in other categories. Since 1936 only four horses have earned the title after scoring all of their victories on turf.
These turf stars, like almost all turf champions, made their reputation at long distances — usually at 11 / 2 miles. While running a mile on grass is an exalted specialty in England, the most talented horses on this continent aim for different objectives. Non-aficionados would be hard-pressed to name the important one-mile grass races in the U.S. except for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Finding the best U.S. racehorse in one-mile grass races would be like looking for the best American athlete in the ranks of, say, javelin throwers.
Nevertheless, in 2012, Wise Dan was a deserving horse of the year. He won the Breeders’ Cup Mile against a field that included two of Europe’s best milers, plus Animal Kingdom, the future winner of the $10 million Dubai World Cup. In addition to his turf exploits, he won a stakes on Keeneland’s synthetic track by 10 lengths and he lost a photo in a Grade I dirt stakes at Churchill Downs against some of the country’s best. He was a triple threat capable of beating the top Euros at their own game.
But that was the Wise Dan of 2012. Owner Morton Fink and trainer Charles Lopresti could have asked their champion to undertake some historical challenges this year. Wise Dan could have raced on dirt against top competition. He might have gone to Royal Ascot and tried to beat the Europeans on their home turf. Instead, the owner and trainer opted for the path of least resistance.
Wise Dan mostly dominated small fields of overmatched rivals at one mile on grass, and didn’t look as overpowering as he had in 2012. When one of his races was transferred from turf to a synthetic track because of rain, he lost it. His finale, the Breeders’ Cup Mile, drew a disappointing field — the best Europeans stayed at home — but Wise Dan had to work hard to beat Za Approval, a Grade III runner. While his 6-for-7 record looks good superficially, he never faced a difficult challenge or beat a top-class horse all year.
Eclipse Awards voters properly don’t consider horses’ achievements in previous seasons when choosing the Horse of the Year. Wise Dan’s 2012 campaign doesn’t count, nor does Mucho Macho Man’s, though he won three of six stakes against top-level competition and was unlucky to lose the Breeders’ Cup Classic by a half-length. But his prior record proves that his Classic victory this year was no fluke. Mucho Macho Man may not be the ideal Horse of the Year, but he is a worthy one.
For more by Andrew Beyer, visit washingtonpost.com/beyer.