Commentary

Who will be Horse of the Year?

Bill Finley gives his odds on the contenders for the sports top year-end prize

Updated: July 7, 2014, 12:38 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

When California Chrome was defeated in the Belmont Stakes he not only failed to become a Triple Crown winner but he opened the door for someone else to become the 2014 Horse of the Year. The race for year-end honors is a fascinating one, and it could go in a number of directions.

For the first time ever, a legal bookmaker is taking wagering on Horse of the Year as William Hill is accepting action on who will win the award. Here's a look at the top contenders, followed by the William Hill odds, followed by my odds:

1. California Chrome (William Hill: 5-2, Finley: 5-2): The edge he has on the rest is that he controls his own destiny. A win in the Breeders' Cup Classic will certainly be enough for him to land the honor. If he loses the Classic he has to hope that the other top contenders falter.

2. Palace Malice: (William Hill: 3-1, Finley: 5-2): In most any other year he'd be a run-away favorite for the Horse-of-the-Year title. He's established himself as the top older horse in the country with wins in the Met Mile, the Westchester, the New Orleans Handicap and the Gulfstream Park Handicap. If everyone stays healthy, a California Chrome vs. Palace Malice battle in the Classic might decide the race.

Palace Malice
NYRA/Adam CoglianeseWill Palace Malice get a showdown against California Chrome in the Breeders' Cup Classic to decide the Horse of the Year?
3. Wise Dan (William Hill: 12-1, Finley: 8-1): The 2012 and 2013 Horse of the Year, he's done nothing wrong this year, going 2 for 2, but he's been limited due to a bout with colic. He faces tougher competition for the title this year than he did in each of the last two years and voters may have grown weary of rewarding a horse who rarely steps outside his comfort zone of one-mile turf races.

4. Untapable (William Hill: 14-1, Finley: 12-1): With talk of her running in the Haskell she has entered the conversation for Horse of the Year. She'll obviously have to win the Haskell to have any shot and she might have to also win the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Even if she did all that she will need the top contenders to all stub their toes.

5. Shared Belief (William Hill: N/A, Finley: 20-1): He's definitely playing a big-time game of catch-up, but let's not forget that this is a very talented horse who many thought early on was the horse to beat in the Kentucky Derby. With a win in something like the Haskell or Travers he'll be right back in the picture.

6. Mucho Macho Man (William Hill: 10-1, Finley: 25-1): To date all he's won this year is a restricted stakes race. He's been sidelined with bruised ankles and will need to get back on track soon to have any shot at this year's title. He can pull it off with a big fall, which would have to include back-to-back wins in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

By The Numbers: Trying to break into the Southern California circuit as a major league thoroughbred track, Los Alamitos got off to a rough start. They handled a combined $8,603,581 for 18 total races over the weekend. Santa Anita, with 20 races, handled a combined $26,536,593 over the prior weekend. Los Alamitos features the same horses, trainers and jockeys that Santa Anita does. The difference is the brand. Santa Anita is considered the home of world-class racing, while many people no doubt still consider Los Alamitos a leaky roof quarter horse track. That Los Alamitos did very little to get the message out that a new and exciting era was to begin there obviously didn't help.

The news was far better last weekend at Belmont as the inaugural Stars & Stripes Festival did very well at both the betting windows and the turnstiles. NYRA went all in with the Saturday card, which included five stakes races, among them the newly created $1.25 Belmont Derby and the $1 million Belmont Oaks. Total handle for the 10-race card was $18,829,265, an increase of 37.2 percent year over year. The crowd was 11,118, a robust figure for this day and age.

At the Meadowlands, bettors reminded management that when you give them a good product they will respond. The inaugural Meadowlands Maturity was a rare harness race that included 14 starters and a deep competitive field. The race handled $423,394, a huge number for a harness race and $194,097 more than the prior race on the card.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com

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