On the Corner

By Victor E. Zast -- I'm standing on the corner of N. Michigan Avenue and Oak, where "the hawk" blows hard on winter days and the pages of "The Trib" are turned into paper tornadoes when tourists drop them by the curb. Hospitable territory, despite the wind, a place where marketers pass out samples of Altoids and pollsters count votes before they're cast.

I've come to this corner to conduct my own little poll, a survey of random passersby. My question is a simple one: "Which horse should be named 'The Horse of the Year?' "

It's a few weeks after Breeders' Cup Day at nearby Arlington Park, and I'm hoping the results of the World Thoroughbred Championships might lead to answers I can use in casting my ballot for the Eclipse Awards. But my question lands upon ears with the thud of sand.

The first guy I ask, a middle-aged office worker, answers "War Admiral." He means, of course, the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner War Emblem, a horse who gained his own share of headlines here in Chicago by being at the center of a controversy. Nothing plays better in the local press than a fight over money.

The second respondent, dressed to the nines and late for her facial, doesn't have a clue, but she isn't able to escape without saying something that might make her seem knowledgeable. "Oh, I suppose that horse which won the race the bettors fixed. You know, the longshot which got those fraternity brothers in trouble." As if it were Volponi's fault that someone smart enough to scam the system got caught because of him.

The foolish answers drone on.

Most everyone, regardless of gender or age or station in life, admits he or she has no idea which horses should even be under consideration for Horse of the Year. I find this disconcerting in a crowd which can tell you all about Lance Armstrong, an athlete honored as the year's best sportsman, even though he works in a sport less watched than Thoroughbred racing, or which can cite you the chosen university of Sarah Hughes as if she were the nation's daughter and we were paying her tuition.

In such society, Barry Bonds and Tiger Woods and, even, Tony Hawk engender cocktail party patter. They're crossover stars. There's a compelling interest in their stories that goes beyond their exploits on the playing field. The buzz about them is largely hype, as much a creation of spinmeisters as anything else, and as understandable as the promotion of actors and politicians.

Azeri is a very good horse who won a bunch of races nobody remembers. On the basis of pure achievement, she accomplished more in competition than her peers, and she will go in the record books as being the choice of our industry. But this is not to mean she is the choice of the people.

Are you ready for this? An overwhelming number of the people on the corner of Michigan and Oak told me that their Horse of the Year was Seabiscuit.

Seabiscuit? Horse of the Year?

Seabiscuit has been dead for a long time and countless champions since have matched his exploits. The problem is these horses have performed in obscurity, without benefit of publicists who placed their pictures on the cover of national magazines or put their names on the tips of people's tongues. The net result is nobody outside the Thoroughbred industry knows or cares about them beyond the moment they won a race.

For the sake of Thoroughbred sport, it's not enough for its equine stars to simply win races. Marketing today requires the biggest winners be trumpeted in a way that makes them seem heroic or blessed or unique. Fame is a function of promotion. The owners of champions need publicists like matinee idols covet the screen. Or else, the horses for which they've waited a lifetime will spend eternity as agate in the record books, and nothing more.

So, yes, in a year like 2002 when Laura Hillenbrand's elegant, heavily-promoted book graced the New York Times best-selling paperback list for 38 weeks, when the trailer for the upcoming movie Seabiscuit: An American Legend popped up in cinemas, and when no other racing Thoroughbred was able to capture the imagination of the general public more convincingly, Seabiscuit, the 1938 Horse of the Year, deserves the 2002 Horse of the Year award.

Until someone proves otherwise, the people in the street aren't wrong.

Victor E. Zast is president of Private Perfumery in Chicago.