Friday, November 16, 2012

Horse of the Year Not Over Till It’s Over

MIAMI, November 15, 2012—Soon after the completion of the 2012 Breeders’ Cup, I acknowledged, along with the overwhelming majority of published turf writers, that Wise Dan not only is a bona fide Horse of the Year candidate but the most probable winner of the honor.

But I believed then as I do now that it shouldn’t be a slam dunk since--divisional vote-splitting notwithstanding—it’s not incontrovertible that a thrice winning turf miler is the accomplished equal of the 2012 turf campaign staged by the laudably versatile Little Mike.

The accepted wisdom is that Wise Dan’s record in Grade 1 competition is more compelling than Grade 1 victories at nine, 10 and 12 furlongs, including two of America’s most prestigious events; the Arlington Million and Breeders’ Cup Turf.

We have stated often that we are from the Horse of the Year school of legendary turf writer Joe Hirsch who believed that this country’s top horse, replete with a proper, deserving resume, can be anything from America’s fastest sprinter to its stoutest stayer on any surface.

In that context, it can also be the one Thoroughbred that gets the heart and imagination, well, racing.

And I also believe that a Horse of the Year component should include the rewarding of connections that take their Thoroughbred out of its comfort zone, demanding that it take on, within reason, the biggest challenge possible.

If a horse can step out of its element and succeed, his or her owners deserve recognition beyond an Eclipse in the owners category because they played the game the way it was originally intended by its pioneers to be: a sport.

This week a funny thing happened to certain-to-be-named Filly & Mare Sprint champion Groupie Doll on her way to the farm for a little R & R after she completely dominated her peers this season whether the surface was dirt or the synthetic stuff.

It seems that while being paraded at Churchill Downs on November 11, a ceremony meant to honor a handful of Louisville-based 2012 Breeders’ Cup champions, the filly herself turned into a handful.

"When we took her over for the parade she was dragging them around," said Bill “Biff” Bradley, the filly’s co-owner and trainer. "She's so good right now we’re thinking about [running in the Cigar Mile.]”

Nice spot. For one thing it’s a mile race--on the dirt—a race that’s never easily won: In its 23 runnings, 10 of its winners had to run a sub-1:34 mile to get the job done.

For another, and most significantly, it’s a Grade 1 open to males, a race that was roundly accepted as an instant classic since Woody Stephens won the inaugural NYRA Mile with Forty Niner in 1988.

Should Groupie Doll take on males and defeat them, she will have earned my Horse of the Year vote. Let’s look at the record:

After three straight in-the-money efforts at Gulfstream Park, in which she finished close behind crack male sprinter/miler Boys At Tosconova, multiple Grade 1 millionaire Awesome Maria, and two champions, Royal Delta and Musical Romance, she’s won five straight, two Grade 2s and three Grade 1s.

Bradley co-owns the filly with his father, Fred, Carl Hurst and Brent Burns. The team is seriously considering running in the November 24 Grade 1 at Aqueduct’s HolidayFest program.

The Cigar is a handicap and the group has said the weight assignment will be the determining factor. Weights are scheduled to be released on Sunday, November 18.

"If the [weights] look all right, we'll probably go," Bradley said. Of course, Groupie Doll is entitled to receive a sex allowance and the ultimate assignment is not necessarily the deciding factor. Rather it will be the spread between the filly and her chief rivals.

With To Honor And Serve recently retired, the competition, her main competition figures to come from a list that includes the 2010 Cigar winner Jersey Town, scheduled to make his final career start.

Other major contenders are the 2012 Jockey Club Gold Cup runnerup and 2011 Travers winner, Stay Thirsty, and possibly 2011 Preakness and 2012 Met Mile winner, Shackleford.

Should Team Groupie Doll ultimately accept the challenge, only two questions would remain: Is the four-year-old filly up to such a challenge, and where’s Wise Dan?

A victory in the Cigar would give Groupie Doll four Grade 1s, more than any major American horse this year, and it would give her an all-important victory over males.

Do I think Groupie Doll would beat Wise Dan going a mile on dirt, everything being equal? No, but that’s not the point.

The issue is the record; a record of singular achievement; of sportsmanship, not taking a path of lesser resistance.

The connections of Wise Dan said pre-Breeders’ Cup that a Horse of the Year title wasn’t all that important to them because Wise Dan is a gelding. A Horse of the Year title should also be about one more thing: Want to.

Written by John Pricci

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