I’m calling an audible. Beneath Sunday’s “Hot Takes” column we promised to get to Friday’s “Future Stars” program. That can wait. Instead, I wanted to make my NTRA ballot choices public this week, but I couldn’t because of the existing format.
For the uninitiated, NTRA polling begins in the spring as the Triple Crown season begins to take definition and the organization provides two polls each week; one for three-year-olds, the other open to all divisions.
When the poll was first introduced, it was explained to me that the rankings were meant as a guide by including leading contenders for Horse of the Year honors which, as stated, is open to all. This notion was underscored last year when grass specialist Bricks and Mortar was voted best in show.
The ballot I filled out Monday morning made no sense to me. Why was there a three-year-old category? Haven’t three-year-olds been meeting their elders already, perhaps not to the extent of Breeders’ Cup demands but they have. Happy Saver did win the Jockey Club Gold Cup, yes?
Were we supposed to sprinkle Monday’s Top 10 three-year-olds among the open horses? If we did, what about the other divisions? At the moment, only two horses than can be considered viable Horse of the Year, and Authentic is the odds-on favorite at the moment.
His distant second would be the defending Eclipse champion female, Monomoy Girl, who pulled a Lady Eli, returning from an approximate 18 month layoff in order to retain her Distaff title and lock up older mare honors for 2020. No other horse would be as worthy as these two.
So I kept asking myself, what was the purpose of Monday’s drill? Wouldn’t it have been better for voters to cast ballots for the Top 10 horses in America, age and sex notwithstanding, with an eye toward the protem Horse of the Year, at the least providing a pathway to would be divisional titles?
Obligingly, I followed the script, not able to fill out the ballot the way I would have liked, one that encapsulated Thoroughbred achievement in 2020.
So here, then, is our HRI Poll, based on facts and empirical observation, horses that separated themselves from the crowd. And I must include honorable mentions because there are horses deserving of recognition but without a slot to fill.
Parenthetically, there is no Eclipse category for Juvenile Turf champion and with the recent proliferation of grass racing, there should be. If necessary, this award can be presented before the big reveals so as not to weigh down a cumbersome Eclipse ceremony-even if some progress was made last year.
Again, these are opinions based on factual resumes and empirical data, in some cases reflecting divisional categories we believe should be included in any representative poll. It’s past time that the poll be tweaked, adding clearer definition and understanding of what the poll is meant to represent:
10—Golden Pal: Anyone who has seen this colt race knows he’s a horse-of-a-lifetime type. I cannot recall seeing a juvenile do what he did: clearing the field easily; taken hold of, allowing three or four horses to gang up on him, before getting his button pushed and whoosh, he was gone again. Remarkable!
As with Juveniles, there’s no category for older turf sprinters. Racing secretaries couldn’t fill race cards in this era if it weren’t for these specialists. These races not only fill but produce exciting finishes and oft-chaotic results make them good wagering fare. Turf sprinters and juveniles deserve to be acknowledged.
9-WHITMORE: In a year where there was no dominant player, the Sprint, as it often has, will determine the fastest horse championship. Whitmore, one of the better feel good stories of 2020, proved to be America’s best sprinter on the day it mattered most.
Vekoma’s loss from the Sprint was significant, even if he is more a 7-furlong or miler type that often turns back effectively, and there is no Eclipse Award for Best Miler. In American racing? No recognition of a top miler, the kind everyone wants to breed to? There’s even a Breeders’ Cup race for it, sometimes around one turn, sometimes two. The time is now.
8-RUSHING FALL: No, we’re not contradicting ourselves. I had to make a decision and erred on the side of body of work. A very game placing after chasing throughout at a compromising distance for the F & Mare Turf championship. Rushing Fall was 3-for-3, including two Grade 1s. Was her body of work too light in that context? Probably but, you know, it’s 2020.
7-VEQUIST: Even though she had finished second to one of the big three undefeated female youngsters running in the Juvenile Fillies, she won the definitive championship event on a world-wide stage, handing Princess Noor, Dayoutoftheoffice and Simply Ravishing their initial defeats.
6-ESSENTIAL QUALITY: Maxfield’s connections and his fans had this one coming, and so does the horse. Three-for-three, two Grade 1s including the crowning event, and he never had to leave the Commonwealth. But all states, New York notwithstanding, get a chance to play a home game.
5-GAMINE: America’s female sprint championship came down to a match between this three-year-old and the older, redoubtable Serengeti Empress. The only mild surprise was the level of dominance Gamine displayed…the poor thing.
4-TARNAWA: Yes, another division in which top tier stock took turns beating each other. No hearts and flowers intended for H H Aga Khan, but we were pleased he was rewarded for his loyal support of America’s best racing series has to offer. And he won it with a filly yet—and isn’t trainer Dermot Weld also deserving? If not, he was more than most.
3-SWISS SKYDIVER: After the Preakness, the protem three-year-old filly champion was in the Horse of the Year conversation, hence her high placement in the HRI Top 10. She didn’t deserve the unlucky stumble at the start of her showdown with the three-year-old champion of 2018. Log all those miles and get tripped up on your home track. Tough game, this.
2-MONOMOY GIRL: She is ranked second because as the connections of Authentic indicated while this healthy colt was getting whisk-broomed off the racetrack to join his father in the next stall, just as he began a march toward true equine greatness, there is nothing left to prove. An Authentic defeat could have elevated this girl to Horse of the Year favoritism. Still, all hail the $9.5 million champion race mare.
1-AUTHENTIC: In American racing, the Triple Crown notwithstanding, this superior athlete won America’s most significant races in the same year, beating his elders in one of them in a very deep Classic field.
The Honorable Mentions are Knicks Go and Aunt Pearl. Perhaps there should be a third, Fire At Will, but we’re choosing to reserve judgment in that category because, unlike the other two, his effort was more workmanlike than brilliant. Call it a house rule.