The Super Bowl. The World Series. The Breeders’ Cup.
Which one doesn’t fit with the others? The first two crown their sport’s champion. The third just says it does.
Despite what the Breeders’ Cup markets itself as, horse racing is ill-suited to a true end-of-season championship like the Super Bowl or World Series. The teams that win those events are champions because they’ve bested their competition through a long regular season and multiple playoff rounds before defeating an equally qualified competitor in the final game. Horses just aren’t build for that.
Horse racing is more like professional golf or NASCAR, where individuals compete in events throughout the year and champions are determined, to a large degree, by the competitors’ cumulative performance over the year. On the PGA Tour, for instance, players earn points based on where they finish in each week’s tournament. The players with the most points at the end of the year advance to a playoff round that determines the champion for that year.
Horse racing could implement a similar model, where horses would earn points based on how well they perform in graded stakes races throughout the year. This would also address another area where horse racing is lacking. In most other sports, fans can check the standings every day to see who is in first place or how their favorite players are doing. A definitive procedure for determining not only the champions at the end of the year, but who is leading during the year, could help hold fan interest between the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup. By establishing a direct link between graded stakes results and earning championships, every graded stakes race becomes not only more important, but more interesting. A win isn’t just a win. It’s also a jump up the championship leader board.
Creating a graded stakes points system is a matter of establishing the relative value of each graded stakes race. Races open to all horses should be worth more than those restricted to fillies and mares. Races for older horses should be worth more than those limited to two-year-olds or three-year-olds. Route races should be worth more than sprints.
The American Graded Stakes Committee (AGSC) reviews all eligible races in the United States each year and designates each one a Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, or Ungraded. That’s fine for comparing races within a racing division – it’s useful to know that a Grade 1 for two-year-olds is more important than a Grade 3 for two-year-olds, but it doesn’t tell us how it compares to a Grade 1 for older horses. One of the tools the AGSC uses to grade races are ratings produced by the North American Rating Committee (NARC), which assigns hypothetical weights, or ratings, to every runner in a black-type stakes race each week. These horse ratings are used to calculate a race rating, called the NARC RATE, and those NARC RATES are averaged over a five year period to create a measure of the strength of each graded stakes race in the country.
Using these five-year average NARC RATES as a guide, the table below attempts to express the relative value of graded stakes in all racing divisions to each other, with open Grade 1 route races for older horses being arbitrarily assigned 100 points.
Graded Stakes Race Values
|3up Open Dirt Route||100||65||45|
|3up Open Turf Route||100||65||50|
|3up Open Sprint||80||55||40|
|3up F&M Dirt Route||75||50||25|
|3up F&M Turf Route||80||60||45|
|3up F&M Sprint||70||50||30|
|3yo Open Dirt Route||90||55||35|
|3yo Open Turf Route||70||50||30|
|3yo Open Sprint||70||30||25|
|3yo Filly Dirt Route||70||45||25|
|3yo Filly Turf Route||65||50||35|
|3yo Filly Sprint||50||30||15|
|2yo Open Dirt Route||70||40||30|
|2yo Open Turf Route||70||40||25|
|2yo Open Sprint||50||30||20|
|2yo Filly Dirt Route||55||20||15|
|2yo Filly Turf Route||0||50||15|
|2yo Filly Sprint||45||30||15|
Establishing the relative value of graded stakes races across the different racing divisions is a good first step, but it doesn’t mean those values truly represent the quality of this year’s running of a given race. It will be necessary to adjust those points to better reflect the actual quality of the field in each individual race. Ideally, I would like to rate the quality of the field based on the previous graded stakes experience of the runners. Unfortunately, I don’t have the resources to do that just yet, so I’m going to use secondary factors to make judgements about the race quality – purse money and field size.
One thing that has always been true is that big money will attract big horses. The connections of Blind Luck and Havre de Grace didn’t send their fillies to the Cotillion Stakes last fall because they had their hearts set on capturing a Grade 2 in Pennsylvania. They went because the purse was $750,000, 50% more than the highest Grade 1 purses available in races restricted to three-year-old fillies. The Cotillion is still a Grade 2, but the purse makes it worth more than the average Grade 2 route for three-year-old fillies. Using purse money to adjust graded stakes points is also a good way to reflect the importance of the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup races and several other ‘super’ Grade 1’s.
Using field size to adjust graded stakes points is a little less definitive. While a small field can be highly competitive and a large field can be very weak, the fact remains that having fewer horses to beat makes winning a easier proposition.
Race Value Adjustments
|< 5 runners||-20%|
Now that we have an adjusted race value, we’ll distribute the adjusted race points to the win, place and show finishers using the following ratio:
So what is the net result of these calculations? Are they correct? Well, no, probably not. They’re arbitrary on nearly every level. That said, I think they’re a pretty good start. A look at the total graded stakes points for 2010 gives us a pretty reasonable Horse of the Year result.
2010 Horse of the Year
|Lookin At Lucky||232|
Check out the full 2010 Graded Stakes Leaderboard for all of the division leaders.
If you have any ideas that would improve these calculations or a different idea for creating a graded stakes points system, I’d would love to hear from you. In the meantime, I’ll keep working with what I have in the hope of refining the method until it is as accurate and useful as possible.
Along with the other, less incendiary, Eclipse Awards, the 2010 Horse of the Year will be announced at Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau on January 17th and when the result is read, regardless of who wins, the blogosphere and twitterverse will explode with a near-equal balance of self-satisfaction and righteous indignation.
Those with complaints will, to a certain degree, be justified in their ire. The problem with the Eclipse Awards is that there are no criteria for who should win and no guidance is given to the voters. Everyone, voters and non-voters alike, is left to decide for themselves what Horse of the Year means. And that, of course, can only lead to disagreement.
So how will voters decide who is the Horse of the Year? Here are some of the philosophies I’ve seen promoted:
- The Breeders’ Cup Classic winner.
- The “best” horse, i.e., the horse that would beat the others in a race.
- The “most impressive” horse.
- The horse that has had the best season or accomplished the most.
- The horse that has done the most for horse racing.
- The most popular horse or the horse that has captured the public imagination.
Since there are no official award criteria, I can’t say any of these ideas are wrong, although some seem far less right than others.
To me, and perhaps only me, the Horse of the Year award should go the horse that has accomplished the most during the year, while racing primarily in the United States. And by “accomplished the most”, I mean raced competitively, all year, in the biggest races.
Let’s look at some Horse of the Year candidates.
How can you not love Zenyatta? Even her biggest detractors will readily admit she’s a remarkable racehorse. I’ve followed horse racing for over 40 years and have never seen a horse with so much personality or such ability to engage fans. Her come-from-the-clouds racing style evokes memories of Native Dancer, Silky Sullivan, and Needles – all of whom captivated racing fans by trailing early in races before unleashing a furious charge in the stretch to win at the last possible moment. It may not be the easiest way to win a horse race, but it is certainly the most exciting.
But for this discussion, choosing the Horse of the Year, I don’t care if she dances. I don’t care if she was on 60 Minutes, or Oprah, or anything else off the track. I only care about what she did on the racetrack, and this year, just like last year, her owners and trainer pursued a safe, uninspiring race schedule that was designed to protect her undefeated record, leading to what they hoped would be another victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, this time resulting in the Horse of the Year award they covet. Call it the All-Eggs-In-One-Basket strategy. Last year they won the battle but lost the war when their horse won the Breeders’ Cup Classic but lost the Horse of the Year award anyway due to the much more aggressive campaign waged by Rachel Alexandra. This year they pursued the same path, but didn’t even win the battle, as their horse was not able to get past Blame in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“But she won five Grade 1 races this year!” That may be true, but are all Grade 1’s really the same? Does winning a Grade 1 for two-year-old fillies carry the same weight and prestige as winning the Whitney Handicap? Of course not. Well, the Grade 1’s for older females that Zenyatta won this year don’t measure up to the open Grade 1’s that Blame ran in this year either. It’s not even close. In Zenyatta’s five wins she never faced more than one graded stakes winner and none had achieved more than a Grade 2. (Lady’s Secret runner-up Switch did pick up a Grade 1 in a sprint for three-year-old fillies last week.)
Zenyatta had plenty of opportunities this year to face tougher competition outside her division. In fact, Zenyatta could have run in any of the races that Blame ran in. (Blame, on the other hand, was not eligible to run in any of Zenyatta’s races.) Zenyatta could even have stayed home and faced tougher horses by running against males in the Santa Anita Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Pacific Classic or the Goodwood Stakes. Her connections chose not to. (Another mare, the five-year-old St Trinians, did run in the Big ‘Cap, finishing sixth against the boys. She would lose to Zenyatta by only half a length three months later in the Vanity.) Five wins against lightly-accomplished females and a loss in her only race against top runners is not a Horse of the Year worthy campaign.
So Blame is Horse of the Year, right? Not so fast.
Five races. Four wins (one in a Grade 3). That’s all we get for a Horse of the Year campaign from a horse that was healthy all year? I’ve got to say, it pisses me off a little bit. Not unlike the Zenyatta camp, here we have another barn trying to find the absolute minimum necessary to pick up a Horse of the Year trophy. The difference being that at least Blame ran against the toughest competition available during the year before capping off his season with a win in the biggest race of the year.
Great horse. Amazing career. But one race in the U.S. isn’t enough to be our Horse of the Year.
Europe has the Cartier Racing Awards. Canada has the Sovereign Awards. The Eclipse Awards should be exclusively for U.S. based horses. Sorry Goldi.
Blind Luck, a three-year-old filly, raced nine times in 2010 at tracks all across the country, including Santa Anita, Oaklawn Park, Churchill Downs, Hollywood Park, Delaware Park, Saratoga Race Course and Philadelphia Park. Although she competed in five grade 1’s (winning three) and four grade 2’s (winning two), she didn’t face older horses until the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic and never faced males. If her record included another win or two, I would be very tempted to give her the award just to make the point to the other camps that you can’t sneak through the year cherry-picking a few wins and expect to be handed Horse of the Year.
Proviso raced six times in 2010, all in Grade 1’s, and faced males twice (winning the Kilroe Mile). Other than their Breeders’ Cup races, I think a case can be made that Proviso’s 2010 campaign was more impressive than Zenyatta’s. Proviso’s Kilroe Mile win was over male Grade 1 winners Fluke (2009 Citation) and Awesome Gem (2010 Hollywood Gold Cup), and multiple graded stakes winner Battle of Hastings. In the Diana, she beat 2008 Female Turf Champion Forever Together and eventual Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf winner Shared Account. In the First Lady she beat mulitple graded stakes winners Gotta Have Her, Dynaslew and Wasted Tears. I believe a win in the Breeders’ Cup Mile could have earned her the Horse of the Year, but that was not to be. It’s hard to beat her up too much for running seventh against a world-class field. She may have just been in over her head.
And my pick for 2010 Horse of the Year is…
I’m not completely happy about it, but my pick for 2010 Horse of the Year is Blame – for the quality of his wins, despite their limited quantity.