It’s not enough, apparently, that the question of who should receive the Horse of the Year Eclipse has riven racing communities. In addition to Blame vs. Zenyatta, we can also bicker about the award itself.
Comments like those above are part of a steady stream of conversation dominating message boards, Twitter, and comment sections across racing communities, conversations about the significance of the awards and about how they should be decided. And yeah, that second comment is by…me.
I am in the camp that thinks that Eclipse Awards, like most awards, are fairly meaningless. In the case of some accolades, there is potential for financial gain (one assumes, for instance, that Lords of Misrule, the racing novel by Jaimy Gordon that won the National Book Award this week, is going to reach a larger audience and sell more copies now that it’s been recognized), but in most cases, an award offers a sense of pride and accomplishment, pleasant but ephemeral, quickly forgotten by almost everyone except the recipient. (Without looking, what movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2006? And what exactly is that movie’s legacy in the world of film?)
When I delve into racing history, I don’t start with the lists of champions. I start with the races: who won them? Who did they run against? What was their story? I read race recaps and feature articles; where possible, I watch replays. Sometimes I find out that one of the horses about whom I’m writing won an award, but it’s one of the last things I learn, and it’s nearly always the least meaningful.
The Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year carries no criteria. None. I’ve asked. So each voter apparently brings to the ballot his own perceptions about what constitutes a Horse of the Year. The number of races won. The number of races in open company. Weight carried. Grade 1 races won. Winner in head-to-head competition. Winning streaks.
Awards of almost any sort are nothing if not subjective; even an award with a title as specific as “Most Valuable Player” sparks debate. What does “valuable” mean? Most valuable to his team? Best player? Most accomplished? Should great players on good teams be considered, because they are less valuable than good players on mediocre teams?
So for a second straight year, we engage in fervent debate about who should receive the Eclipse for Horse of the Year. For a second straight year, two contenders whose accomplishments vary significantly are facing each other. With one set of criteria, one horse is a clear-cut winner; bring other criteria to the conversation, and opinion shifts. The outcome will have nothing to do with the award itself, but with the values that the voters bring to the ballot – because without any guidelines, we get, I guess, to vote according to whatever standards we as individuals set.
A Horse of the Year is memorable long before he gets that award; the title does not advance or secure a horse’s place in racing history, determined long before ballots are cast. Might Blame’s stud fee go up if he wins? Yeah, maybe, and then, so what? If he doesn’t produce winners, no statue is going to convince breeders to send mares to him. Being voted Horse of the Year will do nothing to enhance his legacy: he’ll either be remembered for what he accomplished this year, or he won’t.
The award will mean equally little to Zenyatta. Win the award or lose, her accomplishments are already distinctive. A Horse of the Year title won’t influence decisions about to whom to breed her; it won’t increase her value. It will offer nothing except vindication to those who support her, vindication that has nothing to do with what she’s accomplished on the racetrack or how she’ll be remembered.
In 1941, How Green Was My Valley won the Academy Award for Best Picture. One of the losers that year? Citizen Kane. Another? The Maltese Falcon. Who knows how the Academy voters that year made the decision? And 70 years later, who cares? Who cares about how they voted, and who cares who won? History is not written by people who cast awards ballots; we will no more affect history when we vote for Horse of the Year than did they who voted for Best Picture in 1941. Racing history for 2010 has already been written.