John Pricci executive editor John Pricci has over three decades of experience as a thoroughbred racing public handicapper and was an award-winning journalist while at New York Newsday for 18 years.

John has covered 14 Kentucky Derbies and Preaknesses, all but three Breeders' Cups since its inception in 1984, and has seen all but two Belmont Stakes live since 1969.

Currently John is a contributing racing writer to, an analyst on the Capital Off-Track Betting television network, and co-hosts numerous handicapping seminars. He resides in Saratoga Springs, New York.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dream Realized, Bullet Dodged

ELMONT, NY, January 18, 2011--With all due respect to the late, great Dr. Martin Luther King, news of an Eclipse Award for the great race mare Zenyatta on Monday night in this age of the 24-hour news cycle was a long time coming:

Queen at last, Queen at last, thank God Almighty, she’s Queen at last.

For that, you can blame people in the media like, well, me. Yes, I voted for Curlin two years ago and Rachel Alexandra last year. But as it turns out, this year I saw the light.

In a perfect classic sense, maybe neither of the two 2010 Horse of the Year finalists had the kind of season that would have been considered unforgettable back in the day.

But in the final analysis the voters got it right and Zenyatta rightfully won out, even if her five Grade 1 victories over dubious competition was a point of contention.

But, sorry, a five-race campaign including the G3 Schaefer, a head victory over Quality Road--while in receipt of five pounds--a loss to Haynesfield and a half-head victory over a mare on your home track doesn’t scream dominance, either.

In a Horse of the Year context only, there were “knocks” on both sides. But high class, determination, talent and heart won the day.

So, please, no repeat of the vitriolic 2009 post season and let’s just celebrate both champions.

The Horse of the Year voting was close but hardly a nail-biter at 128-102, five votes for Goldikova, one abstention, and two non-votes notwithstanding. What was surprising, though, was the nature of the margins by two of the three voting groups.

The National Thoroughbred Writers and Broadcasters, the largest organization, went for the mare by a 71-49 margin, a very solid 59%.

The NTRA, which consists of racing secretaries and Equibase chart callers, chose Zenyatta by 36-15 margin, a wide plurality of nearly 71%.

That’s interesting considering this group tends to be strict constructionists, which figured to lean more heavily on the head-to-head match. That makes this margin stunning.

The shocking portion, however, was Daily Racing Form’s tally, a margin that looked very much like a third judge at a heavyweight title fight who was looking the other way while a battle was joined.

The DRF favored Blame by a 38-21 count or 64%. Extracting the DRF figures, the remaining two organizations favored Z by a 107-64 score, pretty much a blowout for the mare.

Maybe that infamous East Coast turf writers’ bias virus was particularly virulent inside the Form’s downtown Manhattan offices? Take two video replays and call me in the morning.

On a serious note, it would have been a minor catastrophe for the sport had Zenyatta been rejected a third time. Fan polls taken on every major racing website, including HRI, favored the mare by extremely wide margins.

I cannot prove this but I have no doubt that many fans would have walked away from the sport for good.

Al Stall Jr., who was masterful keeping Blame at a concert pitch all season, said on an NTRA conference call last week that those who don’t respect Blame’s credentials don’t completely understand how the game is played.

Stall does have a point to some degree but it misses the big picture view. What Horse of the Year means has been sliced and diced for months now, and all generally acknowledge now that there is no strict definition.

As long as voters are qualified and agenda free, we agree Horse of the Year should be in the beholder’s eye. If one wants strict criteria then one could reason that Hall of Famer Dan Marino was overrated because he never won a Super Bowl.

Which is what Jerry Moss referenced when speaking of Zenyatta’s 2009 Classic victory on that same NTRA conference call: “We won the Super Bowl last year and didn’t get to take home the trophy.”

This year, Moss and his wife, Ann, John and Dottie Shirreffs and Mike Smith finally did. Justice was served if for no other reason they gave racing Zenyatta’s six-year-old season when the sport badly needed something to cheer about.

It is a relief to the HRI staff that we won’t have to deal with the fallout of a Zenyatta defeat. Maybe Z’s fans now can see it in their hearts to thank Rachel Alexandra for possibly playing a role in Moss’ decision to bring Zenyatta back.

A quick overview of the remaining Eclipse Championships, the no-brainers and otherwise. Nearly 95% of the members voted:

Two-Year-Old Male champion Uncle Mo received 236 of 238 votes. It should have been unanimous, of course, but blind loyalty and prejudice often draw in from the AEs.

Two-Year-Old Filly champion Awesome Feather got 235 votes for, three against. More silliness.

Three-Year-Old Male champion Lookin At Lucky, 224 in favor. Can’t be too upset that uber talented Eskendereya, Belmont winning Drosselmeyer, Derby winning Super Saver and Travers winning Afleet Express won a few hearts over minds.

Three-Year-Old Filly champion Blind Luck won by a 237-1 margin, the lone dissenter voting for No Such Word. Didn’t know write-in candidates were permitted.

Older Male champion Blame was the only unanimous champion with all 238 votes. Look for that fact to be repeated in a DRF ad coming soon.

Older Female champion Zenyatta, by a 237-1 margin. I love Goldivoka, too, but c’mon, that’s why there’s a turf category.

Female Sprinter champion Dubai Majesty, 232-6. I, too, have some empathy for injured retiree Franny Freud, supported by three voters.

Male Sprinter champion Big Drama by a 170 to 61 margin over the fleet-footed Majesticperfection. Seems about right.

Male Turf Horse champion Gio Ponti by 199-22 over Breeders‘ Cup Turf winning Dangerous Midge in a down season. Parenthetically, had Paddy O’ Prado beaten elders in the Turf Classic I likely would have given him the nod. And I would have had lots of company.

Female Turf Horse champion Goldikova, by 212-15 over Proviso. Proviso’s timing probably could not have been worse.

Steeplechase Horse champion Slip Away 175 to 25 over Arcadius. The fact there were 28 abstentions is troubling. The NSHA has some work to do.

Outstanding Owner WinStar Farm in a very close call with Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Moss, 100-81. Eleven other owners received votes with six abstentions. That Special Eclipse to the Mosses looks pretty good about now.

Outstanding Breeder Adena Springs, close over Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider, 69-55, with Brereton C. Jones and WinStar Farm attracting solid support.

Outstanding Trainer Todd Pletcher over John Shirreffs, 168 to 28. Pletcher won his first Kentucky Derby, three Breeders’ Cup races, and pretty much everything else by the numbers. But by such a wide margin over Jerry Hollendorfer and Al Stall Jr. doesn’t seem equitable.

How many cross-country trips did Blind Luck make? How many horses won their category unanimously? And as for Shirreffs, enormous pressure notwithstanding, did you know that a young Zenyatta tied-up at least once in her early career training?

There was a time when a Horse of the Year trainer was semi-automatic. That’s not really fair but then neither was the winning margin in this category.

Outstanding Jockey Ramon Dominguez with 124 votes, as opposed to 60 for Garrett Gomez, 32 for John Velazquez and 13 for pressure-packed Smith. Ramon is a great rider, of course, but purse earnings always have been too important in this category.

Outstanding Apprentice Jockey Omar Moreno in a blowout with 197 votes; 20 abstentions. Here, purse earnings should and did matter. It’s not often horsemen ride the bug in races bearing names.

Awards of Merit to Marylou Whitney, for her breeding acumen in the tradition of the late C.V. “Sonny” Whitney and a lifetime of philanthropic achievement, to Claiborne Farm, for a century of breeding excellence, and Team Zenyatta, for their contributions to the sport, could not have been more deserved.

And a deserving nod to the Media Eclipse winners: Photographer Michael Clevenger, Feature Writer Wright Thompson, Enterprise Writer Bill Finley, Coordinating Producer Mike McQuade of ESPN for live coverage, HRTV for television feature, Amy Zimmerman, Producer, and Mike Penna, President of Horse Racing Radio Network for live Breeders’ Cup coverage.

Written by John Pricci

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