Pulling the sheets taut, tucking the corners in neatly and then smoothing the coverlet, I made up my mind, with neither a wrinkle nor a doubt anywhere, and relaxed comfortably in the conclusion that Wise Dan is the Horse of the Year. But then Buff Bradley charged into my thoughts, bounced everything into disarray and dropped an anvil of an idea onto the nightstand, reducing it to splinters.
The trainer said he's "thinking about" entering Groupie Doll in the Cigar Mile, which means I'm thinking about what a victory at Aqueduct would mean for the most dominant horse in America. With a win on Nov. 24 in New York, wouldn't Groupie Doll put herself in the middle of any discussion about Horse of the Year? In fact, if she wins the Cigar Mile as convincingly as she has won each of her last five races, wouldn't it be difficult to deny her Horse of the Year?
After the Breeders' Cup and after a few moments of clarifying consideration, the Horse of the Year became, for the moment anyway, obvious. The conclusion seemed not only reasonable, but also inevitable. Yes, Royal Delta and Little Mike made eloquent arguments with their Breeders' Cup success; but Wise Dan's victory in the Mile, where he set a Santa Anita course record, was the culmination of an effulgent campaign that established him as a modern virtuoso of versatility: five stakes, four of them on turf and one on a synthetic surface, plus a runner-up finish on dirt in a major stakes that with a better trip he would have won.
Any conclusion in horse racing, even one that seems reasonable and inevitable, comes with an ejection seat.
But that was nearly two weeks ago, and any conclusion in horse racing, even one that seems reasonable and inevitable, comes with an ejection seat. After her Breeders' Cup victory, Groupie Doll was to have a layover at Churchill Downs before going home to the Bradley farm in nearby Frankfort, Ky., for a well-earned vacation. But after Sunday's "parade of champions" at Churchill Downs, where her effervescent energy suggested she wasn't quite ready for a pastoral retreat, thoughts soon turned to the Cigar Mile.
And so now thoughts turn, or rather return, to Horse of the Year. If Groupie Doll wins the Cigar Mile, she'll have six stakes victories this year, one more than Wise Dan, and she'll have four (for those who value Roman numerals) Grade I wins, which, again, would be one more than Wise Dan. She also has two Grade II victories, or one more than Wise Dan.
Moreover, no horse in any division has been more dominant than Groupie Doll this year. Since Bradley equipped her with blinkers, she has won five consecutive stakes by 26 total lengths, and nobody has finished close to her. Her victory in the Filly & Mare Sprint was among the best performances of the Breeders' Cup extravaganza because in rallying to win by 4 1/2 lengths she not only overwhelmed her rivals but also overcame the prevailing speed bias of the Santa Anita surface.
The only argument against Groupie Doll, and it's a powerful one, would be that she's a sprinter, and sprinters, tradition and history insist, don't vie for Horse of the Year honors, especially female sprinters. (Actually, three Horses of the Year were also named champion sprinter. But Tom Fool, Dr. Fager and Ack Ack didn't sprint exclusively, or even primarily; all three won stakes sprinting but also won at 1 1/4 miles during their Horse of the Year campaigns.) But if Groupie Doll were to become the first filly to win the Cigar Mile, she would satisfy at least one traditional Horse of the Year criterion, for she will have defeated males.
For more than 60 years, no matter how dominant she was within her division, that's what a filly had to accomplish to even be considered for Horse of the Year. She had to beat the "boys," and some great ones met that challenge in glorious fashion. Twilight Tear (1944), Busher (1945), All Along (1983), Lady's Secret (1986), Rachel Alexandra (2009) and Havre De Grace (2011) all won against males on the way to being named Horse of the Year. Zenyatta finished second by a head in the Breeders' Cup Classic of 2010, when she was Horse of the Year, but she had won the Classic the previous year.
But over the last two decades, voters for the Eclipse Awards have moved away from the historical criteria. Some might argue that voters have slewed away from the traditional criteria out of ignorance. But I prefer to think that voters today simply abhor a pigeonhole and that, most of all, they have adjusted criteria to modern developments. Perhaps some voters are ignorant of the sport's history, but many have adapted to meet exigencies.
In 2002, for example, Azeri became the first filly to be named Horse of the Year without winning against males. But what were the options? High Chaparral, the turf champion, had a single victory in North America, the Breeders' Cup Turf. Left Bank, the champion older horse, had but three wins and only one of those was at a distance beyond a mile. War Emblem finished eighth in the Breeders' Cup Classic, where Volponi stunned, winning only his second stakes of the year. Azeri, with her seven stakes victories, was the best choice, even if she did represent a departure from the historical criteria.
If Groupie Doll wins the Cigar Mile convincingly, she could force voters to consider another, even more dramatic, departure from tradition.
I'm confident that 20 years ago, neither Acclamation nor Gio Ponti could have been named champion older male, an honor that's traditionally given to the horse that has accumulated the most accomplishments around two turns on dirt. In 2009, Gio Ponti didn't have a single race on dirt; last year, Acclamation finished 10th in his only start on dirt. And I suspect that 20 years ago, although a superstar of unimpeachable charisma and talent, Zenyatta would not have been Horse of the Year.
But voters are changing and adapting, and this year they'll have to adapt to another unusual confluence of circumstances. Right now, Wise Dan is the best choice to be Horse of the Year. But even he could represent an untraditional choice. Fort Larned, the Classic winner, should be the champion older male, and Little Mike the champion turf horse. Can a horse win the golden Eclipse Award without winning a divisional title? Wise Dan could become the first. His winning Horse of the Year honors would suggest that in this modern era, where horses regularly race on three surfaces, versatility has become a pivotal championship virtue.
If Groupie Doll wins the Cigar Mile convincingly, she could force voters to consider another, even more dramatic, departure from tradition. Can a sprinter be Horse of the Year?
The weights for the Cigar Mile will be announced Sunday. Bradley said the assignments will largely determine whether Groupie Doll travels to New York in pursuit of an historical victory.
Either way, voters will have to consider unprecedented options. And either way, Wise Dan or Groupie Doll, the Horse of the Year will be a superlative racehorse.