Wise Dan is sure to lock up Horse of the Year, but the gelding may not win the Older Male award (Photos courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire).
In an intriguing twist, as we move closer to the announcement of Thoroughbred racing’s Horse of the Year and divisional champions, there seems to be more debate about the 2013’s top older male than Horse of the Year.
And the consensus choice to be crowned Horse of the Year is Wise Dan, who just turned seven and is a male.
As illogical as all of that might seem, there is a line of thinking that Wise Dan, who raced exclusively on turf last year, does not deserve to be named Horse of the Year, the champion male turf runner and the champion older male – three awards he swept in 2012.
Part of the argument involves Wise Dan’s 2012 versatile Horse of the Year campaign, which included a runner-up finish in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster on dirt and a win on Polytrack in the Grade 2 Ben Ali as well as four graded stakes wins on turf. But In 2013, he was AWOL on dirt, making seven starts and winning all six of his races on turf and finishing second on Polytrack in the Shadwell Turf Mile (which was forced off Keeneland’s Turf course due to heavy rain). In response some observers have argued that since there is an Eclipse Award specifically for turf horses and not one for dirt horse, the older male award should go to a horse like Game On Dude or Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man who were multiple Grade 1 winners on dirt and synthetics.
MUCHO MACHO MAN IS IN CONSIDERATION FOR THE OLDER MALE AWARD AFTER WINNING THE BREEDERS' CUP CLASSIC
Personally, I don’t buy it. While some may choose to interpret best older male as a consolation prize of sorts for an older male who gets snubbed in the Horse of the Year race, in reality the title of the award should set the parameters for the award. Any male horse older than three is eligible for the award and the championship should be awarded to the best among them – even if that horse already has one or two titles in the bag.
And when one of those awards is Horse of the Year, well, saying that horse is not the best older male makes no sense.
That being said, what might make sense is changing the categories for the Eclipse Award. While arguing against Wise Dan’s claim to be the top older male seems out of line given the division’s name, there’s some logic to it in the grand scheme of things.
Keep in mind, the Eclipse Awards were established in 1971 when turf racing was not as fashionable as it has become in this era. There were only a handful of major turf races, a situation that would change dramatically in the 1980’s when the Arlington Million and million dollar Breeders’ Cup turf races became some of the sport’s biggest races. The idea behind an Eclipse Award for turf champion back then was to give turf horses a shot at an Eclipse Award that in most cases would be difficult for them to win in a beauty contest with dirt horses.
Now, as illustrated by Wise Dan, there’s a much more level playing field.
While there’s no perfect solution, the time seems right to adjust the Eclipse Award to add a category for best dirt horse – without an age requirement - among males and females to complement the turf award. This way, there would be a category for a Game On Dude or Mucho Macho Man and the vote for the top older horses would not be viewed as a consolation prize and voters would be more inclined to follow the guidelines inherent in the title of each category.
A fly in this ointment would be races on synthetic surfaces. Polytrack and other artificial surfaces may look like dirt, but horses that run well on them usually fare better on turf than dirt.
My vote would be to group turf and synthetic runners, but that’s for a different debate.
For now, simply giving dirt horses their own category will add more logic to the process and eliminate much of the appeasement that underscores the support for Game On Dude or Mucho Macho Man to be the champion older male.
It has my vote.