The Horse of the Year Choice is Clear

By Dick Jerardi
Now that all the candidates have finalized their Horse of the Year credentials, it is time to review. I pretty much decided after the Breeders’ Cup what I wanted to do, but I wanted to give it some time to gain perspective.

I am going to list six possibilities, but I think it may come down to two and should come down to just one.

I think a Horse of the Year has to run more than four times regardless of how effective that horse is in those races. Wise Dan and Main Sequence were a combined 8 for 8 with seven Grade 1 wins between the two horses.

In 2012, Wise Dan ran six times, and last year he ran seven times, ending with a win in the Breeders’ Cup Mile each time. I had no hesitation about voting for him both years as Horse of the Year. I just don’t think his season was long enough in 2014, but I absolutely loved the comeback after the surgery. Let’s hope we see him again in 2015.

I really thought Main Sequence’s three summer and early fall wins were a product of running against less-than-star-quality competition. Obviously, I was wrong. The horse was brilliant when he won the Breeders’ Cup Turf. A reasonable case can be made for Main Sequence as Horse of the Year – four Grade 1 wins culminating with a win over a great field in the Turf. I don’t care about grass or dirt. I am just looking for the best horse with the most accomplishments. There have been years when Main Sequence’s four-race season would be worthy of Horse of the Year. I don’t think this is one of those years.

There are no guidelines for voters, but I like to see a year with accomplishment, top performances, and durability.

Untapable qualifies on all three. The 3-year-old filly was great from late February to the last day of October, with six graded stakes wins, including four Grade 1 wins, culminating with a powerful show in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. I love that she was as good at the end as she was at the beginning. I wish she did not have to run against such a powerful inside speed bias in the Haskell in her only try outside her division. In many years, she would have done enough for me. Not this year.

I thought Shared Belief’s Pacific Classic was the best performance of the year. He may turn out to be the best of this group of outstanding 3-year-olds, but there were simply horses with better and more extensive résumés. I wish Shared Belief did not have that foot injury that kept him out of the Triple Crown. I wish he did not get crushed at the start of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Who knows how he would have done in the Triple Crown if he had the chance or in the Breeders’ Cup with a better chance?

I really think Horse of the Year should be between Bayern and California Chrome. The former ran 10 times and was good enough to run his very best race on Nov. 1 after running his first race on Jan. 4. Bayern ran in January, February, April (twice), May, June, July, August, September, and November. When he cleared the field, he was unbeatable, winning five times by a combined 38 3/4 lengths and then showing more heart than anybody knew he had in the Classic to win by a nose.

Bayern’s bad races were really bad, losing the Preakness by 21 lengths after a brutal start and the Travers by 20 lengths because he probably should not have been entered. Still, the Woody Stephens, Haskell, Pennsylvania Derby, and Classic is a serious résumé.

If Bayern is voted Horse of the Year, I will understand, but I am not voting for him.

California Chrome has a résumé unlike any in recent memory. Think about the near Triple Crown misses in recent years. When was the last time a horse ran nine times from late January to late November, nearly won the Triple Crown, and was as good at the end as he was at the beginning? When was the last time that horse was running at all at year’s end? I had to go back to Sunday Silence and Alysheba to find a Kentucky Derby-Preakness winner in top form at the end of his 3-year-old season. Curlin obviously was still firing at the end of 2007, but he only won one of the Triple Crown races.

That California Chrome is that rare horse is a tribute to the owners, the Shermans and their team, and a brilliant colt that survived everything and came out the other side.

The Kentucky Derby winner always gets extra credit from me. So does a Derby-Preakness winner. Ifs should not be part of the equation, but I will always be convinced that with a more aggressive ride in the Belmont Stakes, California Chrome would have won the Triple Crown. I am not sure what Victor Espinoza was doing in the Pennsylvania Derby, but second was the best a far-from-race-ready California Chrome was doing that day as Bayern broke a 40-year-old track record.

I was going to vote for California Chrome before he won the Hollywood Derby. I am not sure what I would have done if he had lost, but I loved that Art Sherman made that call and was pleased that a trainer who ran his horse when he really didn’t have to was rewarded with a perfect ending to a campaign for the ages.

If this vote was just about impact on the game, California Chrome would win in a landslide. That is a small factor for me, but it is much more about accomplishment and ability.

California Cup Derby, San Felipe, Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness, close fourth in the Belmont, a brilliant third in the Classic, and that Hollywood Derby is a flat-out dazzling résumé, worthy of Horse of the Year in just about any year. And remember California Chrome did not just win those six stakes – he dominated all of them, winning by a combined 23 1/4 lengths. With zero hesitation, I will be voting for California Chrome as my Horse of Year.