Monday, January 10, 2011
Exit Poll Bodes No
(CHICAGO, IL - January 10, 2011) An article appeared in The New York Times this week in which collaborators Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes observed that the popularity of the Coen Brothers’ movie True Grit has made the low-budget remake a favorite to win this year’s Best Picture Oscar. The co-writers noted that two other Westerns – Dances With Wolves in 1990 and Unforgiven in 1992 - also rode box office success to Best Picture notoriety.
The implication was that no matter how rigidly-determined the voters are about selecting the most deserving movie on the basis of artistic quality their taste becomes tainted when the number of tickets sold for a film exceeds expectations. Anything possessing the sobriquet of art becomes automatically more artistic when people start verifying its merit by emptying their wallets.
Movie critics are as prone to sharing their opinions of which films should win Oscars as horse racing writers are at telling the public which horses they’re going to vote for in the Eclipse Award competition. Forecasting the results of these competitions become humdrum after a few rounds of the ritual go down. Of course, the rationale is that turf writers are experts in these matters, having watched closely at everything that goes on throughout the year in order to handle their assignments. Fair enough.
Something that won’t happen ever is a post mortem of how the electorate divided itself. Only the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters reveal how its members voted. The votes of some Daily Racing Form representatives will be shared with the public this year. But voters from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association will keep their votes secret. At some risk of being considered presumptuous and susceptible to profiling, one can only conclude on the basis of a mythical exit poll that tendencies follow predictable paths.
In the 2009 Horse of the Year competition, ballots reflected regional, gender and age biases. Of the turf writers who live west of the Rocky Mountains, 73 percent chose Zenyatta instead of Rachel Alexandra. Voters from Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Illinois chose Rachel Alexandra over Zenyatta by a margin of 2 to 1. Nearly 67 percent of female turf writers, regardless of where they reside, chose the California-based mare.
Although Rachel Alexandra carried all three voting blocks, Zenyatta fared best with the NTRA group where she received 48 percent of its vote. But she tanked miserably with voters in the Kentucky-based trade press and at Louisville and Lexington newspapers, amassing a paltry 24 percent of this demographic. She earned 43 percent of the overall vote. Rachel Alexandra became Horse of the Year decisively.
This year’s election, being an entirely other proposition, might provide different trends. Zenyatta attained greater national respect than she had last year by traveling east to defend her Breeders’ Cup Classic title. Yet those with an ear to the ground hear the name Blame a lot, which suggests that the older, male-oriented NTWAB and the DRF, where evaluating horses by how they might race against other contenders can conflict with the assessment of historic accomplishment, are flexing their larynxes. The absence of clear cut directives on selection criteria renders the Eclipse Awards with subjective determination. Regardless, by and large, the results are predictable.
Logical consistency isn’t a given of the nominating process. Pluck and Shared Account won World Championship races on the Breeders’ Cup cards and aren’t included in the top three of their categories. Nevertheless, the one-time North American starter Dangerous Midge finds himself in contention for Male Turf Horse, displacing perhaps Paddy O’Prado, an American-based runner with four victories in graded turf stakes, among the nominees.
Eskendereya was voted a finalist in the Three-year-old Male category despite an abbreviated undefeated campaign of three races that ended in April. In contrast, Position Limit, a perfect two-for two in admittedly easier spots, was completely overlooked in the Two-year-old Filly competition despite being routinely acknowledged as the best of her class this summer. Only one start in North America didn’t dissuade voters from selecting Goldikova to be a candidate for two Eclipse Awards, neither of which is Queen for a Day.
Last year, Rachel Alexandra (Three-year-old Female) and Zenyatta (Older Female) received 100 percent of the turf writers’ votes in their respective categories. Summer Bird took all but two votes in the Three-year-old Male category. Informed Decision took all but three votes en route to winning the Female Sprinter award. If the voters this year were asked to select which horse by winning an eclipse Award would create the most beneficial effect for the sport, that selection, too, would be unanimous. As Horse of the Year, the head-beaten Hollywood star would be a True Grit selection in every sense.
If the vote was left up to the fans, or if each dollar wagered on a horse counted as one vote for that horse, Zenyatta would have won in a landslide. But to win the Horse of the Year Eclipse Award by a vote of the press and some industry insiders, Zenyatta would have had to retain her support among women and West Coasters, convince even more NTRA voters that she would do more than Blame for the sport if elected, and improve her support in Kentucky by 50 percent or pick up 20 more votes in the East. If past is prologue, the electoral ecosystem doesn’t serve her.
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