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Monday, November 26, 2012
A debate worth having

By Paul Moran
Special to ESPN.com

It is a refreshing change. Nothing in terms of identifying the eventual Horse of the Year for 2012 is cut and dry. There is room for difference of opinion that spares the emotional fervor of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta at the end of 2009 or the sense of fait accompli that preceded Zenyatta a year later and Havre de Grace at the end of 2011. Opinions differ without profane slurs. There are arguments to be made on behalf of more than one or two of the season's best and civility prevails.

What's the racing world coming to?

Humans being more readily handicapped than horses, Wise Dan appears to be the favorite and it is difficult to muster a bullet-proof argument either in favor of or in opposition to his candidacy. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the horseplayer. The last National Thoroughbred Racing Association poll suggested a substantial plurality in support of Wise Dan and most of the voters are also participants in Eclipse Award voting. At the same time, Wise Dan's success was limited to mile races on grass - a specialty for which there is no Eclipse category -- and in any other year Little Mike, winner of three Grade 1 races on grass, including the two the most prestigious international races run in the United States, would be the certain turf-course champion. It appears that the fortune of one of these very talented and deserving horses will come at the expense of the other.

Wise Dan: Woodbine Mile, Shadwell Turf Mile, Breeders' Cup Mile.

Little Mike: Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, Arlington Million, Breeders' Cup Turf.

The lack of anything in this realm that can be viewed at cut-and-dry almost a month after the Breeders' Cup lends a component to the new year that has been missing for some time - suspense.

Your call, but Little Mike's portfolio is stronger than Wise Dan's. Certainly, Fort Larned merits consideration after adding the Breeders' Cup Classic to the Whitney Handicap he won last summer at Saratoga. Winning the Classic puts a horse in the frame but in this case guarantees little else. He may be charisma challenged, a perhaps overwhelming handicap in a contentious poll.

Support for Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another, now a resident of Japan, is a bit surprising. Retirement of a 3-year-old in June is not the path to immortality and the division in which he competed was, as best, profoundly ordinary, its leading figures better known for injury and illness than competitive heroics. Certainly, I'll Have Another will be champion 3-year-old if only by default but there is no argument to be made for the frivolous Horse of the Year aspirations of his fans and connections. On the other hand, the lack of support for Royal Delta is perhaps more surprising. Here is a defending Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic champion who repeated emphatically at Santa Anita while defeating a field of females that included two undefeated champions, both Breeders' Cup winners; the winner of the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama Stakes and a California-based multiple Grade 1 winner - the best field assembled anywhere this year and one of the deepest in the race's history. Yet Royal Delta - who should be the frontrunner to become the fourth female in as many years to win this title -- is not the favorite to win the Horse of the Year vote. If her lack of a victory over males is held against her, her accomplishment more than balances the scale.

The lack of anything in this realm that can be viewed at cut-and-dry almost a month after the Breeders' Cup lends a component to the new year that has been missing for some time - suspense.

In the advance of winter, a bit of suspense that does not involve the fiscal cliff is a good thing.