The past few weeks have left the sport knocked flat on the ground. First, there was the tragic news that our brightest 3-year-old turf star, Banned, had to be euthanized after a sustaining an injury while training. Then, the nation’s most dominant turf star, Cape Blanco, was retired after picking up an injury following his victory in the Grade I Joe Hirsch Turf Classic. After that came word that Acclamation, one of the most noteworthy contenders for Horse of the Year, would not be able to make the Breeders’ Cup due to a ‘foot problem.’ But perhaps the most shocking news of all was the announcement this week that Blind Luck would be sold early next month as a broodmare at the Keeneland sale, marking the end of her racing career. With so much bad news, it’s hard to find a bright side on the road to the Breeders’ Cup, as racing in 2011 has paled in comparison to last year’s all-star show.
Earlier, it seemed narrowing down the Horse of the Year contenders to three would prove to be a difficult task; but the defections of several top horses before the Breeders’ Cup will certainly knock out some faces from consideration. Blind Luck, considered by many to be the best horse in the country before her last race, had top honors in her sights; she got her revenge on her imposing rival, Havre de Grace, in the Delaware Handicap, and looked like she would pass her next test by flying colors. But something went wrong in the Grade I Lady’s Secret. Blind Luck, who had never finished out of the money in 21 starts, and owned 12 wins, finished last of seven, pulled up in the stretch when she failed to respond to Garrett Gomez’s urging. It would be a massive understatement to call this performance “uncharacteristic.” Immediately following the Lady’s Secret, Jerry Hollendorfer made the announcement Blind Luck would not run in the Breeders’ Cup; it wasn’t until a week and a half later the decision was made to retire her.
On September 27, Thoroughbred Times ran an interview with Hollendorfer, and reported her trainer said, “Blind Luck did not train well earlier this year at Santa Anita and that her feet bothered her during the winter there.” While an MRI reportedly showed Blind Luck had not sustained an injury in her last race, an abrupt retirement with a talked-about 2012 campaign on the horizon leaves one to question if this foot issue was bothering her during the Lady’s Secret, and if her connections made the decision to retire her before it could cause her further discomfort. No matter the reasons for her retirement, the news came as a shock to race fans, who hoped to see her continue her intense rivalry with Havre de Grace in 2012. Without a start in the Breeders’ Cup, and only one grade I win to her 2011 campaign, Blind Luck has been left with little hope for Horse of the Year honors. It’s a shame, since Blind Luck was the only horse to hand defeat to the year’s most likely recipient of the award, Havre de Grace.
It seems unprecedented that a filly or mare should win Horse of the Year honors three years in a row, but after the dominant runs of Rachel and Zenyatta, Havre de Grace has steamrolled over what was left of the older horse division. Without a dominant male to stand in her way on the dirt, Havre de Grace is now poised to take top honors. Her win against males in the Grade I Woodward is her biggest banner to wave, and she has four other wins, two of them grade Is, to add to her argument. Outside of Blind Luck, nobody has even been able to come close to her. Her trainer, Larry Jones, is pointing her to run in the big one come November, which means he’s willing to put his money where his mouth is. The gates for the Breeders’ Cup Classic this year will be filled with fickle horses, if they come at all, so she stands a fighting chance of stealing the show. But there are a couple of males who could turn the Horse of the Year vote in their favor with a win over the imposing filly.
When it comes to classic victories, Tizway holds the most loaded hand of any of HDG’s rivals. The winner of the Grade I Met Mile and Grade I Whitney, Tizway’s record holds more weight based on the prestige of the races; had he run in and won the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the scales would be already tipped in his favor, but he missed that bout due to a temperature. It’s hard to know if last year’s Horse of the Year outcome will influence this year’s call, as Zenyatta’s was more of a lifetime achievement than a reward for her 2010 campaign. Havre de Grace and Zenyatta both won the Grade I Apple Blossom, but is that restricted race or the Beldame really going to hold as much weight as the historic Met Mile or Whitney?
Game on Dude is another horse with two grade Is in 2011: the Santa Anita Handicap and the Goodwood. His close 2nd in the Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup also looks better than Tizway’s 3rd place in the Grade III Charles Town Classic. Then there’s Acclamation, who will miss the Breeders’ Cup, but has more non-restricted grade I wins than any of these contenders; besides missing the championships, Acclamation is hindered by the fact he’s considered a turf horse, and dirt horses are always given the favor for HOTY. All but one of his wins this year have come over turf, with his lone synthetic victory coming in the Grade I Pacific Classic at Del Mar. If a wildcard wins the Breeders’ Cup Classic, leaving all of these horses with the same wins they went in with, should Acclamation be given his due?
Your wildcard for Horse of the Year is Stay Thirsty, the winner of the Grade I Travers. Even though a win in the Classic would only give him two grade Is, he was victorious in the Grade II Jim Dandy and the Grade III Gotham, all of which are historic and respected races, despite their graded status. It would be a stretch in this writer’s mind, but it’s coming down to this: whoever wins the Breeders’ Cup Classic will most likely also take home the Horse of the Year award. Right now, all of these horses are targeted toward the same race, and they will have the opportunity to solve this problem on the track, where it should be. Let’s just hope they can all make it to the gate in one piece.