Some opinion-makers are predicting that Wise Dan's second in the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile, which was transferred to the main track, will cost him his chance at a second Horse of the Year title. There's something wrong with a system in which it can be more rewarding for the game's stars to play it safe and not run.
MIAMI, Oct. 11, 2013--Star power drives sports at the highest level. Thoroughbred racing analysts constantly decry the game’s lack of it. Injuries and premature retirement to breeding sheds are primary culprits.

Not to be overlooked is the counter-productive practice of punishing racing’s biggest names in year-end polls for showing up and losing while giving them a pass for not leaving their barn.

Point of Entry has raced twice this year, winning once in February at Gulfstream and once at Belmont in June. Nevertheless, he has been consistently in the top five in the weekly NTRA poll, ahead of several horses who have two or three times as many stakes victories.

Groupie Doll did not make her first start of the year until Aug. 10 at Ellis Park, where she ran third in an extremely moderate Grade 3. She didn’t win for the first time until Sept. 9 at Presque Isle Downs in an extremely generously endowed Grade 2, with a former $4,000 claimer in closest pursuit. Then she lost again at Keeneland in the Grade 2 Thoroughbred Club of America.

In spite of this, almost all year she has ranked ahead of Dance To Bristol, also an older female sprinter, who merely won seven races in a row from February through August, including the Grade 1 Ballerina. Obviously, if you have a reputation, protecting it by staying in the barn is a prudent policy.

Keep in mind many of the NTRA voters also participate in the Eclipse voting.

Then there’s Wise Dan. Few would have faulted the connections of the reigning Horse of the Year if they had scratched him last Saturday when a monsoon struck Keeneland just before the Shadwell Turf Mile, leading to the race being taken off the grass. (Why is the question? The Arc was run over a much heavier course on Sunday and no one thought anything of it.)

Conscious that a lot of folks would have been disappointed if the nominal biggest star in the game took a pass, owner Morton Fink and trainer Charles Lopresti opted to let Wise Dan run. It wasn’t the first time they had done this. A biblical rain fell on Churchill Downs on Derby Day. Nonetheless, Wise Dan stayed in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic while Point of Entry scratched. Yet Fink and Lopresti have been unjustly criticized for cherry-picking their spots.

The decision to run last Saturday wasn’t entirely altruistic. Wise Dan had almost as splendid a record on fake dirt as he does on grass. Moreover, it was a Grade 1 (and stayed that way despite the surface switch), the purse was $750,000 and the field wasn’t nearly as formidable as some of those in other marquee races over the past couple of weeks.

The official sign had barely been posted on Silver Max’s upset win when racing’s opinion-makers began to predict that the second place finish would cost Wise Dan his chance at a Horse of the Year encore. His three Grade 1 and two Grade 2 wins this season apparently no longer matter, even if he rebounds to make it six-for-seven in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Mile.

It’s not an arguable point that many of these pundits, smarting all season that Wise Dan won the title in 2012 against their wishes, have been aching for an opportunity for payback.

If Game on Dude wins the Breeders’ Cup Classic to cap an undefeated season, he should be a unanimous choice for Horse of the Year. This would have been true even if Wise Dan had won last Saturday. A close defeat or a solid try despite a troubled trip also should be sufficient for Game on Dude to take 2013’s gold medal.

However, if he throws in a clunker like last year, the title should be up for grabs and Wise Dan should not be written off for running second under far from ideal circumstances when his undefeated record could have been preserved by keeping him in the barn.

The criteria should be what have you done, not what did you fail to do.

FTBOA an ungrateful bunch

The Florida Stallion Stakes, inaugurated in 1982 at Calder, will be run for the final time there Saturday. In an appalling display of lack of gratitude and loyalty, the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association are moving the six-race series to Gulfstream next year.

Gulfstream should not be faulted for aggressively pursuing the Stallion Stakes, which will be renamed the Sire Stakes. It was a coup for the Stronach Group and Gulfstream president Tim Ritvo to be able to land what has been one of the premier attractions of Florida summer racing for many years.

It didn’t hinder their effort that Calder, since it got its casino, has treated racing as a necessary evil.

However, without the nurturing of Calder over the years, the Stallion Stakes wouldn’t be the magnificent showcase for Florida horses and stallions that it has become. Most recently, FSS graduates Big Drama and Awesome Feather went on to win the 2010 Breeders' Cup Sprint and Juvenile Fillies, respectively.

This year's edition could produce a couple of Breeders' Cup hopefuls, the colt My Brown Eyed Guy and the filly Scandalous Act, each of whom dominated the first two stages of the series. How well they handle the stretchout from six and seven furlongs to a two-turn mile and a sixteenth will go a long way toward deciding whether they make the trip to Santa Anita. Both are owned by Gilbert Campbell and trained by Kathleen O'Connell.

Calder’s support of the state’s breeding industry has gone well beyond a handful of rich stakes races. It has provided a stage for tens of thousands of Florida-breds to launch their careers and establish themselves. These opportunities encouraged investment in Florida-breds, which reaped hundreds of millions of dollars for breeders.

This should count for something. Obviously it doesn’t to the FTBOA.