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Horse of the Year & the Breeders' Cup Classic: Can You Have One Without The Other?

Matthew Stockman - Getty Images

With seemingly another season where the race for Horse of the Year is wide, wide open, we are presented with the typical assortment of theories on what makes a horse a true Horse of the Year winner. The Breeders' Cup Classic is the richest race in North America and is the capstone to the racing season. In most fans minds (and that includes me), the winner of the Classic is generally the favorite to be named HOY, assuming that the winner is not a Volponi-like bomb.

This season presents an interesting problem because the horse many believe to be the best in North America, Wise Dan, is just as likely to run in the BC Mile as he is the Classic. Earlier this week, I made the comment that if Wise Dan were to win out this season, including a score in the Breeders' Cup Mile, he would be at the top of my short list to be named Horse of the Year.

Does a horse have to win the Classic to be named Horse of the Year (or at least compete in the Classic?) Furthermore, does a horse have to win on dirt at a mile and a quarter to be named Horse of the Year? The "classic" race, whether in North America or in other parts of the world, typically defines greatness. In Europe, a mile and a half on the grass, traditionally in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, illuminates which horses are the best of their class. In North America, we judge greatness typically (and perhaps misguidedly) by a horse's performance in three races on the dirt in the spring of their three-year-old season and by performance in the Classic - if they get that far.

As a bit of a fun exercise, I went through every winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic since its inception in 1984 and noted whether or not that horse was named Horse of the Year and, if they weren't, which horse won the award instead of the Classic winner. That list is below.

Year Classic Winner HOY? HOY Winner
2011 Drosselmeyer No Havre de Grace
2010 Blame No Zenyatta
2009 Zenyatta No Rachel Alexandra
2008 Raven's Pass No Curlin
2007 Curlin Yes Curlin
2006 Invasor (ARG) Yes Invasor (ARG)
2005 Saint Liam Yes Saint Liam
2004 Ghostzapper Yes Ghostzapper
2003 Pleasantly Perfect No Mineshaft
2002 Volponi No Azeri
2001 Tiznow No Point Given
2000 Tiznow Yes Tiznow
1999 Cat Thief No Charismatic
1998 Awesome Again No Skip Away
1997 Skip Away No Favorite Trick
1996 Alphabet Soup No Cigar
1995 Cigar Yes Cigar
1994 Concern No Holy Bull
1993 Arcangues No Kotashaan
1992 A.P. Indy Yes A.P. Indy
1991 Black Tie Affair Yes Black Tie Affair
1990 Unbridled No Criminal Type
1989 Sunday Silence Yes Sunday Silence
1988 Alysheba Yes Alysheba
1987 Ferdinand Yes Ferdinand
1986 Skywalker No Lady's Secret
1985 Proud Truth No Spend A Buck
1984 Wild Again No John Henry
11/28 39%

Two things jump out at me from this list: First, we're more likely to have a non-Classic winning Horse of the Year than we are a Classic winning one (61% vs. 39%). Second, the last four winners of the Classic were denied the HOY award, although two of those years occurred when the Classic was held over a synthetic surface and we already know that there is a segment of the racing population that just aren't going to accept Classic results on synthetics in a Horse of the Year discussion. Heck, Curlin lost the 2008 Classic and was, in my opinion, correctly named Horse of the Year in 2008. (He also lost his only grass start; you could make a strong argument that Wise Dan is a much more versatile horse than Curlin. Actually, I don't think it's much of an argument - Wise Dan IS a more versatile horse than Curlin.)

Anyway, back to my main point; the list above is littered with Horse of the Year winners that had little to nothing to do with the Classic the year they won. In fact, there are several winners of HOY that lost in the Classic, including Zenyatta, Curlin and Cigar. Tiznow came back to win the Classic for the second time (the only horse to accomplish that feat) and he was denied HOY. Why? Cause he lost to Point Given, a three-year-old that won every significant three-year-old race in sight except the Kentucky Derby.

Point Given brings up another discussion question with Horse of the Year: does the Horse of the Year have to race against open, non-restricted company? One of the knocks against Zenyatta was that she only faced fillies, with the exception of her two Classic races, and she only beat open company on the Santa Anita synthetic track. What about a horse like Point Given? He never faced older horses, only his fellow three-year-olds. Does that fact that Point Given never beat an older horse in his career diminish his Horse of the Year credentials? Secretariat was named Horse of the Year as a juvenile, as was Arazi in Europe. (Below is the same analysis of Arc winners and corresponding European Horse of the Year winners.)

It's a tricky proposition to come up with hard and fast rules as to what "defines" a true Horse of the Year. The sport of horse racing is particularly specialized today with horses usually settling into a specified route of ground or on a particular surface. While the Classic and the Triple Crown races, given their stature and notoriety, will also be the centerpiece of American racing, the lessons from the past reveal that a Horse of the Year winner can come from any number of different areas of the sport.

If the "best" horse is limited to which ever horse wins the Classic, we might as well just dispense with the voting and hand the Eclipse Award over in the winner's circle at Santa Anita. But that's typically not what we do. Instead, fans and voters attempt to determine which horse was truly "Horse of the Year", not just horse of a moment.

Year Arc Winner HOY? HOY Winner
2011 Danedream No Frankel
2010 Workforce No Goldikova
2009 Sea the Stars Yes Sea the Stars
2008 Zarkava Yes Zarkava
2007 Dylan Thomas Yes Dylan Thomas
2006 Rail Link No Ouija Board
2005 Hurricane Run Yes Hurricane Run
2004 Bago No Ouija Board
2003 Dalakhani Yes Dalakhani
2002 Marienbard No Rock of Gibralter
2001 Sakhee No Fantastic Light
2000 Sinndar No Giant's Causeway
1999 Montjeu No Daylami
1998 Sagamix No Dream Well
1997 Peintre Celebre Yes Peintre Celebre
1996 Helissio Yes Helissio
1995 Lammatarra No Ridgewood Pearl
1994 Carneigie No Barathea
1993 Urban Sea No Lochsong
1992 Subotica No User Firendly
1991 Suave Dancer No Arazi
7/21 33%