Industry voters determine the Eclipse Awards for thoroughbred racing's annual divisional championships and Horse of the Year. As we've seen from this week's election, surprising things can happen during a voting process.
Yet even with that in mind, the vote for Horse of the Year 2016 almost seems a fait accompli in favor of California Chrome. This is somewhat surprising, considering California Chrome was beaten for the first time this year in last week's Breeders' Cup Classic, North America's most important horse race. Although the strength of California Chrome's 2016 campaign would certainly make him worthy of being Horse of the Year once again (don't forget, he was Horse of the Year at 3 in 2014), I do not believe the recipient of this award should be the given that it appears to be.
There are only two real candidates for 2016 Horse of the Year, and they are California Chrome and Arrogate, the 3-year-old colt who beat California Chrome by a very significant half-length in the Classic.
Right here, let me state that I have not yet decided which of these standouts will get my Horse of the Year vote. But I will say my deliberation on this matter is not a case of indecisiveness or intransigence. I'm being deliberate because I see the strength and legitimacy of both candidacies, which apparently puts me in the minority.
Despite his defeat in the Breeders' Cup Classic, California Chrome remains the clear favorite for Horse of the Year, as evidenced by the fact that he retained the top spot in this week's National Thoroughbred Racing Association weekly poll. It is worth noting that the people who vote in the NTRA poll are some of the same people who will vote for the Eclipse Awards. California Chrome, who has led this poll all year, attracted 30 first-place votes this time and amassed 442 total points. Arrogate, who was fifth in last week's poll, received 16 first-place votes and 418 total points to move up to second in the poll.
The primary reason why California Chrome retained his position atop the NTRA poll, not to mention his standing of first place in the hearts and minds of so many racing fans, is his body of work this year, which is compelling by every possible measure. California Chrome was dominant this year in such major events as the Dubai World Cup, Pacific Classic and Awesome Again. He also won three other stakes races, and his close second in the Classic was a fine effort.
No one can dispute that California Chrome's overall record in 2016 dwarfs Arrogate's. Arrogate started in only two stakes races this year. But he was a 13-1/2 length winner of the Travers, our most important 3-year-old race next to the Triple Crown events, delivering the type of explosive performance that one sees only once in a great while. And he followed that up with his decisive win in the critically important Breeders' Cup Classic.
I am certainly aware that Horse of the Year is, after all, an award honoring the best horse of the YEAR, not the best horse during the two days of the Breeders' Cup. That said, if I do vote for California Chrome for Horse of the Year, and I might, I won't be entirely comfortable with it. Here's why:
From what we saw in the Breeders' Cup Classic, there is a very, very strong possibility that Arrogate is better than California Chrome. Demonstrably better. And speaking only for myself, I know I'll have a hard time casting a Horse of the Year vote for a horse who lost the most important race of the year to a better horse, even if that was his only loss of the year.
That is the root cause for my agonizing over this Horse of the Year vote, and the reason I don't quite understand why it seems so clear to favor California Chrome for other people.
Anyone who watched the Breeders' Cup Classic knows that Arrogate was clearly better than California Chrome. There can be no debate on this.
California Chrome, who had performed like a monster all year, had complete control of a pace in the Breeders' Cup Classic that was totally unremarkable, especially considering the class of horse involved. Heck, the pace in the Classic was slower through the first six furlongs than the pace 2-year-olds posted earlier in the day in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and that faster pace in the Juvenile held together.
In other words, California Chrome had everything his own way in the Classic, on a Santa Anita track he adores and at a 1-1/4 mile distance he can do in his sleep. And Arrogate, who was at a huge disadvantage from a tactical standpoint having to run down an opponent who was loose on an easy, uncontested lead, and who was also the top-ranked horse in the WORLD, still came and got him.
And it wasn't like Arrogate got the best of a tiring California Chrome because that was not the case. The 119 Beyer Speed Figure California Chrome earned for finishing second in the Classic was the highest of his prolific career. There was a yawning chasm in the Classic of almost 11 lengths back to the third finisher, a telling indication that the first two finishers both performed sensationally. California Chrome didn't slow down. Arrogate just did the kind of running into an adverse setup at a late point in one of the world's best races that you almost never see. Ever.
For Arrogate, the Breeders' Cup Classic and Travers make for a total of only two stakes starts. That is a light resume. I get that. But those races are special events. And Arrogate's brilliant performances in those two races was all the proof necessary to recognize that he is an exceptional race horse.
So I'm taking my time with my Horse of the Year 2016 vote. Body of work versus possibly superior superstar performer is not an easy matter to resolve. For me, anyway.