ELMONT, NY, January 20, 2011--It may be a romantic notion but I love the idea that as I read about what Penny Chenery has in mind for racing fans, I was sitting in the shadows of a racetrack that was the backdrop for perhaps the greatest equine performance ever made.

That, of course, would be June 9, 1973, when a defending Horse of the Year champion opened an insurmountable lead as he moved like a tremendous machine en route to a 31-length victory in a Belmont Stakes run in 2:24, 12-clipping the competition to death.

Secretariat is still widely regarded as the most popular Thoroughbred, certainly in the modern era, until a female behemoth named Zenyatta came along to challenge that legend as she boosted attendance and television ratings wherever and whenever she appeared in her Horse of the Year season.

The Horse of the Year Eclipse for her achievements on the track certainly was far from a no-brainer, narrowly tasting defeat for the first time in her career at the hooves of Blame, the best handicap male to race in America last year. But as to which Thoroughbred is more popular, that issue never was up for debate.

In that spirit, Ms. Chenery, owner of Secretariat, has created the Secretariat Vox Populi Award to honor the most popular Thoroughbred of any racing season based on a vote of racing fans, the first time any racing person or organization formally recognized one extremely well-liked racehorse by the racing public. Fittingly, the newly created award will go to Zenyatta.

“Horse racing already has established avenues to award outstanding accomplishments and we certainly should honor superior performance,” Chenery said in a press release. “But achievement can be measured in many ways.”

“Fans occasionally feel a disconnect when the horses who most impacted [them] are not recognized through traditional equine awards. The industry is long overdue in annually acknowledging the star horse who brings the most excitement and attention to the sport. It is my hope that the Secretariat Vox Populi Award will achieve that purpose.”

Chenery selected this year’s recipient but future plans call for a committee of distinguished racing personalities and industry representatives to choose the winner in each successive via a national online vote.

The idea of allowing fans to participate via their incorporation into the Eclipse Award process is certainly not a new one, but it’s always been viewed askance by some members of the three Eclipse voting groups, the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, NTRA racing secretaries and Equibase chart callers, and Daily Racing Form staffers. The current voters fear that Eclipse Award recognition would devolve into a popularity contest, especially in the absence of stated guideline qualifications.

I have been against fan participation in the Eclipse process for just that reason. But I no longer feel that way, now believing time has come for fans to have a meaningful Horse of the Year voice upon the establishment of guidelines to monitor a secure voting process.

“Fans should play a greater part (in voting for Horse of the Year), and we need to figure a way to make that possible,” said Jerry Moss, owner of Horse of the Year Zenyatta, in an NTRA teleconference in advance of Monday‘s Horse of the Year announcement.

Moss is not the only practitioner who believes time has come to get fans more involved in the sport. An informal poll was conducted via telephone in advance of this post by HorseRaceInsider with seven horsemen. Every one was in favor of fan participation, but also agreed there should be some qualifying standards.

The Cartier Awards honoring European champions uses a formula that includes a point system based on performance in stakes races, points from votes cast by journalists, and Racing Post and Daily Telegraph readers on a 40-40-20 pro rated basis.

Whether that’s the best method is open to debate. But certainly some objective standard allowing fans to participate as a fourth group in the Horse of the Year Eclipse Award process should be required. Some measure should be put in place that helps assure the quality of fan opinion and a fail-safe that eliminates multiple ballots.

The industry is learning, not without some pain, that fans and horseplayers are demanding that they have a voice and have been expressing their displeasure with the status quo via boycotting tracks they deem fan unfriendly, and are supporting those which take measures to improve the lot of the customer.

Compared to that situation, getting fans more actively involved in the inner workings of Horse of the Year should by easy. If racing’s older demographic is allowed to participate in the process, it might be easier to get their children attracted to, and involved in, the game. Certainly couldn’t hurt, and it’s painless.

Online voters should be made to register before being allowed to vote. But this, too, needs to be a painless, one that doesn’t give the appearance of some marketing trick used to compiling a mailing list. This is about giving, not getting.

There have been proposals as to how best involve the voters. Distributing ballots at racetracks, simulcast venues and ADW account holders certainly would seem to assure the legitimacy of the fan voting bloc, but is limiting compared to online convenience.

As for online registration, the guess is only those who care will take the time to register. Seems unlikely a person would register just to prank the system. As for the criteria used by the three voting blocks in place, the system works fine. I’m opposed to a selection committee defining criteria for industry professionals to use.

And, please, no half measures. Allow fans to be a meaningful part of the Horse of the Year process. As for the notion of a “People’s Choice Award” in lieu of real fan participation, we now have one of those in place, courtesy of Secretariat and his owner.