Saturday, January 15, 2011

Horse of the Year Dogma

I, like a lot of you have followed the horse of the year chatter in thoroughbred racing. In harness, it's easy and it usually is. There are no set rules or criteria for our voting, and Rock n' Roll Hanover is the horse. If he is not voted HOY in harness I am pretty sure Fed Ex messed up on sending the ballots out, and they got re-routed to the planet Zoltar. In thoroughbred racing, as seems to be par for the course, the debate is about as clear as a mud milkshake.

As this article says, there are no "rules" per se. But as Steve Crist and others note, there is a fall-back dogma.

“There have never been any rules for it or guidelines,” Crist said. “If you look at the history of the thing, it’s usually the best horse in the open division, and the times people have gone elsewhere are because there was no standout horse in that division.”

Indeed, male dirt horses dominate Horse of the Year voting. And when a season lacks an older-male dirt horse, voters have as an automatic default the year’s 3-year-old champion.

This to me, is striking. In harness racing, for example, we would never do this, ever. There is no litmus test or dogma, or fall-back plan based on what others say to do; we generally vote for who is the best horse, or "superstar" of the year. That can be a two year old filly, older male, older female, whomever.

People have spoken at length about HOY this season and have given us stats, strength of competition and all the rest. That's great (although I have purposefully stayed away from it here, because often times it polluting). But I wonder, should Zenyatta lose the HOY vote again this year, if this does not expose that our sport is doing something wrong in their HOY dogma above - eliminating the common sense horse.

Zenyatta is a superstar, and even her detractors note that. She retired the highest money winning mare in history, tied for the most grade 1's by a mare in history, she's the first mare to win the Classic and first mare to come second in the Classic, in that races' history. She is a dual surface mega-winner and is 19 for 20 with one second over three seasons.

Throwing everything else out, and all the other debate out the window: Does it make common sense to anyone that she would go zero for three in HOY voting, with that resume?

I think what we might be seeing here with the general public (where Zenyatta wins polls by a 3 or 4-1 margin) is not an indictment of voters - people who vote for Blame are not stupid. Read one paragraph of a Steve Crist or Beyer book to figure that out - but an indictment of the dogma of the process itself.

A horse with that resume (or ball player or quarterback for that matter), should at least have one MVP, or HOY Award, don't you think?

People ask for stars in horse racing, and they believe the general public will latch onto a horse and make this sport a better one. I agree with that to some extent. Well, what does it say to the general public when the biggest star in racing in the modern era is not even a one-time Horse of the Year? Dogma or no dogma, stat or no stat, Beyer figure or no Beyer figure, it makes little sense to me.


Tinky said...

The argument that you make is fairly typical of Zenyatta supporters, in that it is principally emotional, rather than intellectual.

While it is true that there are no set criteria for the award, it was indisputably created to honor the "Horse of the Year", and to be given to the best horse to have performed during a given year.

No one would argue that Zenyatta was not a more important, and memorable horse than Blame (for example), but those factors do not speak to whether or not she was actually the best horse to perform in 2010.

In 2009, Rachel Alexandra had a more aggressive, impressive, and historically important campaign than Zenyatta. She deserved the award.

This year, while cases can be made for three horses, it is clear that Zenyatta was not the best horse to race in the U.S. (Goldikova was), and she also failed to win her only meaningful race (the BC).

Ironically, Z's connections' ultra-conservative management arguably worked against her in the context of the HOY award. Had she faced – and proven herself – against males on more than only two occasions, her record would have been more impressive. Consistently beating modest runners of her gender again and again proved little, other than that she was remarkable and admirably consistent.

Finally, I do agree with you that it would be odd for a horse of her stature not to ever win HOY. But on close inspection, I can't see a compelling argument that she ever was the best, most accomplished horse to race in either of the past two years.

Pull the Pocket said...

Thanks for taking time to point out I am not intellectual. :)


Anonymous said...

I took your argument intellectually if it means anything Pocket. It had nothing to do with statistics, but dogma, capiche??? For the record; I am not wearing teal socks.

Phil said...

If I am reading this accurately it is apparent that you would vote for an Uncle Mo-type (potential superstar/one of the better 2YO's we've seen in a coons age) over a Blame (112 beyer-type, who would not have went 4/5 in the hdcp div in several recent years)?


Pull the Pocket said...


You are reading the thesis correctly! "Defaults" should play no part in the HOY vote - horses should.


Phil said...

That's a fair point and I would lean to it in part. QR was tailing off badly when they met, Haynesfield was nothing, too. Blame might be voted HOY-but he's lucky he was born in 2006; and male.


Tinky said...


As you hopefully recognize, I said nothing of the sort. I said that the argument you produced was more emotional than intellectual.

Pull the Pocket said...


I understand that. I was offering that you were missing the point of the article. It had nothing to do with emotion.

The argument I put forth was about how racing places its athletes in the pantheon of Horse of the Year, or judges them. There is an automatic, fall-back bias tilted to the fastest "horse" without looking at other factors. We do not look at the athlete itself in its discipline or sex, when judging it. I think that misses out on honoring horses. You can argue the Hall of Fame takes care of that and it is a sound argument, however, I think it begs us to look outside the box a little.

Case in point - the BH top 100. Ruffian is 35 or thereabouts. Horses like Cigar are in the to 15 or 20. There are only three or four mares in the top 50. I find that intellectually insulting.

Ruffian is 50 standard deviations above the mean of other mares in that DNA pool. Cigar was a great male older horse.

I think racing is missing out - if a horse comes along who is way above the mean (like a Goldikova or Zenyatta) say on turf, or as a sprinter, or as a mare - that should be recognized in our HOY pantheon and matrix- yet it does not.

I think that is why horses are slipping through the cracks, and I think it is a problem with the dogma associated with the voting.

That was the point of my post.

Thanks for responding. I know you are a smart dude and a good player - that is obvious. I am asking you to simply think outside the dogma for a moment and understand my point.


Tinky said...


Thanks for the elaboration. Horse racing in the U.S. has, unfortunately, suffered from a male bias in many important respects, and for a very long time. With regards to the HOY question, though, I am not sure that it has been a serious problem.

This year, for example, I would argue that the biases against foreign runners and grass horses are even more pronounced than any bias against females. I say that, of course, because Goldikova really was clearly the best horse to have raced in the U.S. in 2010, and yet she is barely in the discussion. Why? Because most voters arbitrarily give preference to American-based runners, while many also give strong preference to dirt horses.

While I am sympathetic to the 'bigger picture' that you are attempting to articulate, I don't really see how any fundamental aspect of the U.S. racing industry might be harmed if she doesn't receive the award, nor how it might help, in any meaningful sense, if she does.

Pull the Pocket said...

Hi Tink,

I do agree - the lens you convey is there. As well, I do not think it shakes the foundations either way for our big picture in a measurable, meaningful way. We have too many problems.

Being a student of both sports - harness and thoroughbred - and spending almost all my time on them, there is a disconnect on the two. And I do believe harness has a teeny leg up on this.

Btw - If Goldi raced here twice or three times and won them all..... There is little doubt she should be HOY, in my opinion, and she would get tons of support. I could not care less if she is a "surface or distance specialist" - a horse like her comes around once every generation if that, and should be held in the highest regard any chance we can get. I think the fact that this is an American award, and we want to honor those who put their cash and support the sport here is the only reason we have seen her less in the mix than she should be.


Anonymous said...

I think you are right & I have talked about this before. I saw Ruffian, and if she was a harness horse she would be on its (I follow harness racing as well) top ten list without a sliver of doubt. I am more a thoroughbred fan and historian, and I think we are missing something.


Blaine said...

The sad truth about HOY voting is that the voters for the most part are into what have you done for me lately. All Along in 1983 won 3 grass races in Canada, New York and D.C in October and November and took the honors while Slew O'Gold won the Wood in April, Peter Pan in May, was 2nd in the Belmont, Travers and Marlboro Cup and won the Woodward and JCGC in the fall and was forgotten. I think horses should get extra consideration for how long they campaign and not just what races they won.

I can live with either Zenyatta or Blame being HOY. My issue is with the Zenyatta camp not running her at Belmont given how big she is and those wide sweeping turns in Elmont. If she doesn't get it, it'll be their fault and not that of Zenyatta or Blame. My issue with Blame is his lack of brilliance/dominance. His inability to put any significant distance between himself and his victims is not reflective of a HOY. JMHO.

Anonymous said...

Good points by all!! As Tinky expressed.... the bottom line of dirt horses/mostly males being held as a barometer, is what US racing has been about historically. Can we do better... perhaps.

Stacey said...

I don't believe there is a bias against females per se. I think it is simply that races restricted to fillies and mares by definition exclude males from so much as entering the race, thereby limiting the potential competition.

One of the arguments that Zenyatta supporters put forth is that her connections could not control the quality of horses that entered the races in which Zenyatta ran. While this is true, it's ducking the fundamental issue. No, they could not control what horses were entered in any give race, but they could control in which race they enter their horse. By entering Zenyatta in the Lady's Secret instead of the Goodwood (same track, same day) they eliminated the possibility of facing a Blame, Quality Road, Haynesfield or even Richard's Kid. This argument is disingenuous, at best.

The questions regarding Zenyatta's ability to handle not only males but a surface other than synthetic were out there. Her connections knew about them and fielded questions about them regularly but they did nothing to answer them. The options to test Zenyatta against unrestricted fields and on dirt were plentiful. Zenyatta's connections had many opportunities to face males in races such as the Goodwood and the Pacific Classic, and face males on the dirt in the Whitney, The Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Woodward to name but a few.

The bottom line is that Zenyatta's connections knew the path that they needed to take to be seen as a legitimate HOY candidate and they chose not to. In her one and only start against males on dirt in not only 2010 but her entire career, she failed to win albeit in a gutsy effort. So now all those questions remain.

There are only two finalists for 2010 HOY that truly faced all comers in each race they ran and those horses are Blame and Goldikova.

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