I was under the impression that American horse racing was primarily done on a dirt surface, and that our best horses competed at the one mile and one-quarter distance. I was also told that female horses were celebrated for defeating males at any distance, as it was so rarely done here. My other assumption, based on the press, was that the Triple Crown races were at the top of the heap in quality of competition for three-year-olds, and that the winners of those races were the ones to root for and follow throughout the year. I was sold the idea that the Breeders’ Cup was the championship weekend, and that the whole year’s racing came down to these uber-battles. I was also told that should unexpected results come out of the BC, the whole year’s races were still considered in deciding year-end awards.
With that said, what happened at the Eclipse awards last night?
We awarded our top honor to a turf horse who never set one hoof on the dirt, nor did he win one panel over a mile.
I thought this was America!
Ok, so maybe his turf mile record was was fantastic; I admit, the Woodbine Mile was a stellar performance. OK, Turf male, cool – horse of the year: weirder things have happened (Favorite Trick, anyone?). But what about Champion Older Male?
There was no dearth of talent on the dirt last year. Mucho Macho Man had an inconsistent year, but he strung 2 great wins together: winning the Awesome Again and beating everyone in the BCClassic. Flat Out, Ron the Greek, Cross Traffic, all took turns beating each other in NY and FL. But they all showed up on the dirt, in 1.25 mile races.
Then there’s Game On Dude. The Dude won the Santa Anita Handicap, the (final) Hollywood Gold Cup and the Pacific Classic, sweeping the SoCal Handicap triple. He also took the Charles Town Classic and the San Antonio. He suffered his first loss of the year in the Classic, but avenged that performance with a surprise run and valiant head loss to Will Take Charge in the Clark.
In any other year, the Dude would be a champion. He should have been one for 2013. He ran in open Grade 1 races, supposedly our top level, most prestigious, most valued, all year long. He ran and won on the dirt at 1.25 miles, and also won at that distance against 10 other rivals at Del Mar, a surface he had not performed at his best on in the past.
And he got only 31 votes for champion older male. I’d have been happy with Mucho Macho Man taking the award, after all, he did defeat Dude in the Classic!
And people wonder why our “best” horses retire early. Why keep a good three-year-old in training another year when none of his wins will mean anything? I used to get really ticked off when connections said their retired colt “had nothing left to prove”. Well after this horrendous year, I get where they’re coming from. Why take the chance, why ship, why be a “sportsman” if it doesn’t mean anything?
I thought this was American style racing. I thought our dirt horses and classic distance runners were sources of national pride.
If we actually don’t value that, then we need to own up to it.
Tear up the dirt tracks and replace them with safer synthetics. Cut the Triple Crown races back in distance and spread them out on the schedule. Strip California of its G1s. Ban Lasix and raceday meds.
Because for so long, this is what we have insisted American horse racing is all about. Last night, we proved that’s a lie.