(CHICAGO, IL – December 6, 2010) Extraordinary interest in the Horse of the Year competition continues four weeks after the Breeders’ Cup Classic and four weeks before voters are scheduled to cast their ballots for the Eclipse Awards. Turf writers can’t resist writing about which horse they’re going to vote for. Fans can’t consume enough Horse of the Year content on Web sites, in chat rooms and from newspapers and magazines to satisfy appetites.

Meanwhile, the sizable population of the sport that believes horse racing’s mainly a gambling activity reacts with a yawn. The Eclipse Awards doesn’t flow money into horseplayers’ hands; in effect, the awards are cosmetic. In addition, not having a say in the matter creates ennui. Why should anyone care about what fewer than 350 people decide about any issue anyway?

Well, acknowledging excellence in any field is a tried and true method of piquing human interest. Talent competitions per se (American Idol, Dancing with the Stars) lead the ratings on television. Industries dependent on the public’s adoration make their awards presentations spectaculars (Academy Awards, Espy Awards). The question, at hand, is whether horse racing’s awards are sufficiently grand, not whether they’re frivolous.

“To me, it’s all about the horse,” answered Carolyn Hine when asked if adding a monetary prize to the competition would improve the current Eclipse Awards format. Hine, the owner of 1998 Horse of the Year Skip Away, is less typical of the people that have won the title recently, but more representative of someone who’d find some dough in an envelope a pleasant discovery.

In comparison, Jess Jackson, whose horses have won the award in the last three consecutive years, has a net worth of $1.85 billion, according to Forbes Magazine. Although the world’s richest winemaker has put purses ahead of the fans’ admiration when placing his horses in stakes on occasion, his life wouldn’t change if the Eclipse was sweetened with money.

Regardless, a prize of $1 million for Horse of the Year and $250,000 for one of 10 other Eclipse Awards might create enhanced respect for the sport’s end-of-year honors. Short of opening the voting up to fans and discarding a few categories that are meaningless, no change could do more for developing national notice than a bonus? What exists in the current offerings besides the occasional charismatic horse such as Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra and Curlin in the way of excitement? Absent them, there is little to pitch to the public. The Hollywood stars that would come out to make the affair a glittery evening are no longer involved. In addition, might attaching some cash to winning an Eclipse be reflected in the way owners run their contenders?

“I don’t think monetary rewards would materially affect how horses are campaigned,” offered Alex Waldrop, the president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, a key functionary in the Eclipse Award program. “In virtually all cases, winners of Eclipse Awards have already been rewarded financially – via purse earnings and, sometimes, stud fees and re-sale value,” he mentioned.

Several awards programs, including the Nobel Prizes and National Book Awards, provide monetary prizes. Public recognition for these awards is greater than for the Eclipse Awards, and still their organizers determined that adding a bonus to the basic designation was appropriate. To that Waldrop astutely remarked, “It’s not the same as with other awards where previous compensation may not be nearly as commensurate with demonstrated excellence.”

Furthermore to Waldrop’s point, purses, in fact, represent the area least negatively affected by the slump in horse racing’s fortunes. Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra earned nearly $2.75 million during 2009. Curlin amassed almost $1.7 million en route to his second Horse of the Year trophy; $5.1 million while winning his first. But making the rich richer isn’t what the idea’s about anyhow.

Although the Horse of the Year seems to always be one that’s financially successful, the Divisional Champions aren’t always. Horse racing is no longer a prerogative of the landed class. Putting something in the pocket of people who’ve sacrificed for years before finding the big horse is a payback the sport can afford, given a sponsor’s assistance (e.g. Cartier) or a surcharge on graded stakes purses. Having an Eclipse Award program that’s attended by $3.5 million in perks may also make more people outside of the sport take notice - in effect, a cheap new owner recruitment initiative.

This aside, the fact remains that winning an Eclipse is already a big deal – at least among the faithful. Like most new ideas, change is darn near impossible. Minds are set, mothballs fragrance the air. There are far more troubling things going on than tinkering with something that works to concern oneself with. "Eclipse Awards are very highly prized by those who receive them and coveted by those who do not,” Waldrop noted. “Season-ending awards are important to all sports, not just as a means of recognizing their best performers, but to provide a proper measure of historical context,” he added.

“My memories are my treasures. You can’t put this in dollars and cents,” said Hine, who remembers the evening she won the award as if her own moment in history was yesterday. “I can’t say what my greatest thrill in horse racing was,” the owner of Skip Away remarked. The evasion, albeit diplomatic, was indicative of what Waldrop meant.

Hine was thrilled beyond words when Skip Away won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. She shed tears of joy at the Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs as her departed husband, the trainer Hubert “Sonny” Hine, was honored with induction. But Hine equated her Horse of the Year moment with a priceless experience.

“When they announced it, Sonny and I jumped up and the tears were flowing from the both of us and we embraced each other and kissed each other and when we got to the stage he wanted me to say something and I couldn’t,” she recalled with unbridled emotion.

Vic Zast observes horse racing and other interests on Facebook and Twitter.