The 2005 Horse of the Year vote figures to be a one-sided affair. Saint Liam raced strictly in grade I competition from early February until late November and won four of six races, including the Breeders' Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge in an impressive farewell performance.
Going into the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, the 5-year-old son of Saint Ballado had won the Donn Handicap in February, the Stephen Foster Handicap in June, and the Woodward Stakes in September. He also finished sixth behind Rock Hard Ten in the Santa Anita Handicap in March and second to Commentator in the Whitney Handicap in August. He now enters stud at Lane's End Farm near Versailles, Ky.
Saint Liam's chief rival for Horse of the Year when Eclipse Awards ballots are counted will be Afleet Alex, who also won four of six starts in 2005. Afleet Alex won two grade I races, the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, along with the grade II Arkansas Derby and the Mountain Valley Stakes. Afleet Alex finished off the board just once this year when sixth in the Rebel Stakes (gr. III). His other defeat came in his biggest race of the year, the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), when he finished third, beaten a length by longshot Giacomo.
Afleet Alex's racing year was compressed into four months, from early March until June, due to an injury to an ankle that required surgery in late July. Because of that, the 3-year-old son of Northern Afleet has not had the opportunity to compete against older horses, something many Eclipse Award voters like to see when judging horses from different divisions for racing's top honor.
A third player in this tepid debate for Horse of the Year is Rock Hard Ten, who has won all three of his starts in 2005 while racing exclusively at Santa Anita: the Strub Stakes (gr. II) in March, the aforementioned Santa Anita Handicap, and the Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II) in October. He was second choice on the Breeders' Cup Classic morning line behind Saint Liam, but was scratched because of a mild foot injury suffered one day before the race.
The most popular runner of 2005, Lost in the Fog, would have been a Horse of the Year candidate had he won the TVG Sprint (gr. I) and kept his perfect record intact. But that loss knocked him out of serious consideration.
So we have a trio of Horse of the Year candidates--two with six starts apiece and another with just three. Is it any wonder racing has a difficult time getting the attention of the general public?
We're never going back to the days of Whirlaway, who raced a total of 42 times during his back-to-back Horse of the Year campaigns in 1941-42. He was a household name because he did something people admired: he showed up and did his best. He only won 24 of those 42 starts, but trainers and owners back then weren't as calculating or cautious about running horses in races they might lose.
Whirlaway wasn't the only iron horse of his day. Horses of the Year in the 1940s averaged 15.4 starts in their championship seasons and won an average of 10.3 races. If either Saint Liam or Afleet Alex wins the title this year, the average number of starts for the 2000-05 Horses of the Year will have fallen to 7.3 races and 5.7 wins.
The decline in starts by Horses of the Year from one decade to the next has been steady. Average in the 1950s was 12.6 starts and 8.3 wins; in the 1960s, 11.5 starts and 7.9 wins; in the 1970s, 10.6 starts and 6.9 wins; in the 1980s, 9.4 starts and 6.7 wins; and in the 1990s, 9.3 starts and 6.7 wins.
Last year's Horse of the Year, Ghostzapper, made just four starts in 2004. This trend to pick spots carefully and race less may make good sense for owners who have Horse of the Year aspirations. But racing needs its stars to come out and shine more often.