I remember an old Runyonesque sports writer in New York named Jimmy Cannon who used to start some of his columns with this memorable line, ”Nobody asked me, but…” That's exactly the way I feel about the ongoing debate about who should be “Horse of the Year” come January when all the votes are counted. I'm no expert in the debate, but it seems to me that the outcome matters a lot. Will the traditionalists win out and give it to that durable campaigner Accelerate – or will the owners and breeders get their way and give the Eclipse to the Triple Crown winner Justify?
Messrs Paulick and Jagow had a lively disagreement about the subject on their “Friday Show” on this website and then followed it up a few weeks later with a mutual lament about the limited number of starts per horse – it's down to an average of six a season – that the fans get to see their Thoroughbred stars perform.
Right on target this year, six happened to be the magic number for Justify. Unraced as a 2-year-old, Justify broke his maiden in mid-February at Santa Anita and less than four months later crossed the finish line for the last time, at Belmont, to sweep the Triple Crown. For the fans, that was goodbye Justify, who went off to the breeding shed before any casual racegoer got to know him. Don't blame the animal. He was just following orders.
Accelerate, winner of 10 of 20 career starts and out of the money only once in three seasons, made his case for HOTY with a solid win in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Accelerate, who never raced east of the Mississippi before the Classic, became the darling of West Coast racing fans after American Pharaoh won their hearts with his Triple Crown, Breeders' Cup Classic and HOTY three years ago. So do we have any history to help us solve this dilemma?
Back in the 1970s, after Secretariart's Triple Crown on CBS, I was part of the company posse that met with Lynn Stone and other Churchill Downs officials to try to keep the Derby at the network. Each Triple Crown track negotiated its own deal. Jack Whitaker, Heywood Hale “Woodie” Broun and yours truly were there to plead the case for a literate broadcast that was already widely accepted by the considerable television audience. Jack and Woodie were literary giants, in a class by themselves, never to be equalled.
But then the CBS suits chimed in with a different tune. “Here's my idea,” one of them said. “Our viewers can't keep track of who these horses are because they don't see them often enough.” (That was 40 years ago when Secretariat had 21 starts in his “short” two-year career) “So each 3-year-old who's in the top 20 or 30 in their class should be given a number at the start of the season and race against each other from California to New York wearing that number. Then the fans will remember them, you know, like number five, Joe DiMaggio.”
The Kentucky contingent had a good laugh and said that was one crazy idea. Whitaker, Broun and I slunk off with our tails between our legs. The Derby was lost.
Now along comes Paulick and Jagow to tell us we have a game, like most others, that is rapidly changing, that is increasingly dependent on analytics in mapping out a campaign for a top Thoroughbred's season The romance of the game is being squeezed out drip by drip. Breeders breed for the breeding shed and owners and trainers don't race to win. They race not to lose. Yada, yada, yada. It's the good old bottom line, baby.
What to do? Here are these statuesque animals who give it their all most every time out. Here are all of you, the diehard fans who deserve better. So, who to root for for HOTY?
The traditionalists will tell you a vote for Accelerate is a no brainer…that the Justify connections were premature in retiring their colt…that they were afraid of losing to Accelerate in the Classic. The Triple Crown crowd says why should our horse be penalized. After all, Justify is one of only 13 to have worn the crown.
What to do? I hear an old cliche ringing in my ear, “a tie is like kissing your sister.” But maybe this time around the Eclipse folks can weigh both tradition and analytics – and give us a great big smooch.
E.S. “Bud” Lamoreaux III is the former Executive Producer of CBS News Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt. He has won four Eclipse Awards for his racetrack profiles.
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