Will Blame or Zenyatta be Citizen Kane?

The championship lists are how people learn about horses from the past, even prior to the Eclipses.

Championships offer limited perspective on racing history


The HOY debate is just further evidence that 98% of the population is clearly insane.

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.

28 thoughts on “Will Blame or Zenyatta be Citizen Kane?

  1. Sort of like voting for President, no matter how wide or narrow the margin of victory, only time and history can be the true judge.

    “The Departed” won Best Picture for 2006….need we say more? LOL

  2. Good perspective. I know as a fan I tend to associate Horses with certain years, but can’t remember most HOTY winners. For instance if you mention 2004 I will always think of Smarty Jones, and than Birdstone..before HOTY Ghostzapper (which I had to look up to see who even won).

    The only HOTY winners I tend to remember is the unusual, like Secretariat winning as a 2 year old.

  3. Thank you, Teresa, for some perespective about the perennial much ado about nothing. Like Bill Muuray said, “There’s always fresh!”

  4. Funny you should mention that, Robert. I will always believe that the great, ill-fated Canadian filly, La Prevoyante was robbed of HOTY by the 2yo Secretariat in 1972. She was 12 for 12, (10 of them stakes).

  5. You got the wrong year, all the recipients of the 1941 nominations were deserving of an Oscar. 1952 however the winner was The Greatest Show on Earth against High Noon, the Quiet Man and Singing in the Rain. Zenyatta could be High Noon or Singing the Rain or Quiet Man, all films that have transcended the test of time in a way that The Greatest Show on Earth has not. Blame, who I think is the likely winner is The Greatest Show on Earth. A movie that is entertaining but not particularly memorable.

  6. Linda, did you look that up? How could you have remembered that?!

    I did the same thing, Robert.

    Thanks, August and Dave. Is that a movie allusion that I’m not getting?

    Glenn: no predictions for me.

    DJLoo: Now THAT sounds like a timely, relevant blog post!

    So it seems, Elizabeth, that you don’t think Blame is deserving. I picked 1941 because I think he is. Deserving /= memorable, though.

  7. Teresa,
    In your column, the first comment (by Kincsem1874) was my own, during a Twitter conversation with you. When you kindly let me know that you planned a blog post, I’ve been interested in your explication of the points you made then.

    You appear to belittle the idea of studying championship awards as a way to learn precisely the historical aspects you speak of, e.g., the races, the competitors, the stories of the competition. The comment of mine you cite was in response to your claim that championships are the last thing people think about when discussing the horses of the past. I was not claiming championships told the whole, or only, story.

    I doubt either of us is holding out to an exclusive way of learning the history of racing. On Twitter, you mentioned your knowledge has been gained through the Hall of Fame and study of individual races. The Hall of Fame is, of course, more not less exclusive than yearly divisional champions. (By “divisional championships” I include the divisional or geographical yearly champions acknowledged by the sport prior to official awards.)

    The history of significant races, by division and by track, is a valuable knowledge – yet as a guide to how history views itself and understand its past, it’s a bit like studying battles without knowing who history judged, rightly or wrongly, to have won the war. The list of distinguished racehorses, champions or not, is something naturally learned through exploration of racing history in almost any form. It is not a special component or by-product of a particular mode of study.

    There have been many preemptive columns and comments, both before and after the Breeders’ Cup, defending Zenyatta’s ultimate place in racing history. Yours is a unique view of a newly eligible voter for the Eclipse awards this year. As you have written, Eclipse-type awards are rather meaningless to you, specifically, in your view of historical importance. There are no firm guidelines, so the process is essentially “shrug and vote.” It is an honest though curious stance for someone who herself was recently voted enough of a perceptive and knowledgeable commenter on the sport to be entrusted with a vote on racing’s highest awards. Do you wish there were more firm guidelines for voting? Other sports have adopted point systems of one form or another. What is your opinion?

    I would be hard-pressed to find a reasonable person who strongly disputes that Zenyatta is among our very greatest champions. I agree that the Horse of the Year title, hers or not, will not alter the memory of this racemare.

    However, your point about the 1941 Best Picture going to How Green Was My Valley is ill-used by omitting its historical context: The U.S. had entered World War II less than three months before the Academy Awards. The list of Best Picture nominees (available on Wikipedia) show, admittedly in retrospect of the winner, Hollywood’s firm emotional support for Allied partner Great Britain in the war effort. Almost every other nominated film that year, however great an achievement, had a certain fear, cynicism or negativity in its story. Hollywood voters decided (rightly or wrongly from the perspective of film criticism) it was not the time to vote for those qualities. There is no shame in that reasoning. To leave Eclipse and Horse of the Year voting to those who hold a “Who cares, history is already written,” nonchalance may not be the wisest way to address responsibility in making such choices.

  8. Great post Teresa!

    The Departed…a remake of an excellent HK film. How does that earn an Oscar, exactly? The same folks gave screechy Celine Dion an Oscar for best song over timid, but talented, Elliott Smith.


    I don’t care who wins horse of the year anymore. I just hope after all the recent retirements, we have a few horses left for next year!!

  9. I agree that the Horse of the Year controversies are overblown, but consider that they give racing writers and fans something to squabble about for a couple of months when not much else of interest is going on in the sport. The Breeders’ Cup is over, there are relatively few Grade 1 races left on the schedule, and European flat racing gives ways to steeplechases.

    If Zenyatta should happen to lose Horse of the Year honors to Blame, her partisans can take comfort in the knowledge that their queen is a lock for the racing Hall of Fame and that Blame, admirable as he is, will never be an inductee.

    As someone pointed out, a real problem in racing is the early retirement of so many horses. Blame is gone, as is Lookin at Lucky, as well as Afleet Express, in addition to …

    As for the Oscar injustices, yes, there are many. Cary Grant, Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, and Alfred Hitchcock are among the many major figures in the movies who never won an Academy Award for a particular film. Edward G, Robinson was never even nominated for an Oscar over his long and distinguished career. But they’ll be remembered as long as there are movies while many Oscar winners will remain footnotes.

  10. Linda: Citizen Kane’s not one of my favorites to watch, either, but I do think that in terms of film history, it’s stood the test of time more than the winner that year.

    Keith: excellent point! And yeah…so much for older horses next year.

    Sam, thanks for the comment and for the perspective. You’re right: in the absence of really run racing, at least we’ve got this. 🙂

    Susan: I actually think that your elucidation of the 1941 context supports what I say, in the same way that Casablanca’s victory did: the context and emotion that people bring to the vote weigh as or more heavily as the quality of that on which they’re voting. While Casablanca is among my favorite movies and I’ve taught it for more than a decade, it is rather devoid of the sort of complexity that one might expect from a movie selected as the best of its year.

    Being eligible to vote for the Eclipse Awards had nothing to do with my decision to apply to the National Turf Writers’ Association; it’s an ex officio honor. To be clear, my stance is not “shrug and vote.” It is that whatever the outcome, it is largely insignificant, so perhaps it’s best not to get too worked up over it.

  11. And just one other thought: I am not suggesting that it’s a bad idea for all of those other factors to weigh into people’s decision-making; it seems, in fact, that it would be impossible for them not to. I do think, though, that the widely varying criteria that people use to assess a book, a movie, a horse necessarily means that we should not weigh too heavily the outcomes of such votes.

  12. Hey, Teresa,

    Can you do me a favor? When you are on the backstretch and go by the Albetrani/Darley barn, could you ask somebody why their horse is named Buffum? Buffum is my wife’s family name. A few years ago there was a horse on the NY circuit named Mr. Buffum. My wife’s grandfather bred and raced thoroughbreds, but that was mostly on the WV tracks. Their family homestead is 45 minutes east of SAR in Shushan, NY. Shushan is east of Greenwich, next to Cambridge.

    Thanks a lot!


  13. Yes, HOTY is pretty meaningless. How blessedly sane to hear someone say so. The truth is a rare commodity. Also, How Green Was My Valley is a hell of a great flick.

  14. HOTY is a way for the owner to get a higher fee for breeding rights and therefore important to him or her. I believe Zenyatta deserves recognition for her lifetime achievement of a near perfect record and being the first female to win the Breeders Cup. She brought many fans to the track who otherwise would have never come and did it with real class and flair. Whether she was fast enough or met the toughest competition seems insignificant to her fans. What counts is she gave her all and they love her for it.

  15. Totally agree about Citizen Kane. Everyone knows “Rosebud” but I’m not sure what How Green Was My Valley was even about…..

  16. For the most part I share your view, Teresa, and I put far more stock in the relative value of Hall of Fame induction over that of Horse of the Year.

    HOTY is a fleeting, and apparently fluid, barometer of accomplishment and, as you mentioned, seems to be valued more in determining stud fees, when applicable, than much of anything else. It certainly isn’t necessarily an indicator of future successful performance on the track or in the stud barn, while Hall of Fame induction provides a view of equine accomplishment in a far more expansive historical context. It should be noted, however, that even the Hall of Fame has had its challenges with eligibility criteria and voting processes over the years.

    Still, our society likes to acknowledge its stars annually with accolades and awards. Even if they don’t employ the most objective of measures (or any specifically presecribed measures), they are attempts to recognize significant performance or achievement. Ultimately, though, they are essentially just marketing tools, to be used in whatever way the industry, the recipients, and the media find most expedient. If nothing else, they’re a good excuse for a party.

  17. Teresa, you continue to show your gift for writing, whatever the subject may be. I agree with Leslie, they’re a great excuse for a party, just like the Oscars. However, I must admit that I am glad “Lost In The Fog” received one a few yrs. ago.

  18. Laurie and Ryan: not casting aspersions on either film – just saying that the fact that each won an award hasn’t necessarily done a lot towards securing it a place in history.

    Lynne, as always, you are too kind.

    Leslie: agree with what you say about HOF membership. At least the HOF, though, has a little time to consider the horse’s place in history, a chance to consider the horse in at least a little historical context. But it can be as arbitrary and meaningless as any other such honor.

  19. The point about the slighted Best Picture nominees is a good one, but there is something you are missing in your analogy.

    A Best Picture nominee gets only one shot at the award. This is the third year Zenyatta will be eligible for Horse of the Year. There has been a gradual build-up of frustration on the part of many Zenyatta fans for her previous two losses in the Horse of the Year vote. And if she loses the vote this year it will be for different reasons, and in the end that should be perceived as a slight.

    She lost to Curlin in 2008 in a year when he lost the Classic but achieved a landmark record by becoming the all-time earnings leader.

    She lost to Rachel Alexandra in 2009 despite winning the Classic because of Rachel’s perceived audacious campaign.

    If she loses this year, it will be because she lost a head-to-head match-up to a horse with an inferior resume (fewer races, fewer wins, fewer Grade 1s, uglier loss to a common opponent).

    She arguably achieved more in 2010 than Curlin achieved in 2008 in terms of attention and significance. She proved to be more talented than Rachel over the course of her career.

    The Horse of the Year award for the most part is meaningless, but if the Best Picture nominees were brought back year after year and Citizen Kane continued to get defeated by inferior films, the reasons for that aren’t meaningless? That would be a statement on the part of the voters.

    Since there are no criteria, as a voter, I can’t understand how fellow voters could send in their ballot without Zenyatta as the Horse of the Year at least once in her life other than that voter must not like Zenyatta and be attempting to make some kind of statement about her. We can’t say she’s “an all-time great female” and then not give her an award won by All Along, Lady’s Secret, Azeri and Rachel Alexandra at least once in three years.

  20. You make a good point, Rolly, about multiple-year eligibility, though I’m not sure that I agree that Zenyatta’s history should play into this year’s vote. Either her 2010 accomplishments are worthy, or they’re not. It’s not a lifetime achievement award. And while it’s certainly possible that she’s “more talented than Rachel Alexandra over the course of her career” (and at the same time arguable), again, I’m not sure that that should be a factor in voters’ decisions this year.

  21. Since there are no criteria, it can be a lifetime achievement award and there is precedent for it. So to say that it is not is your opinion…a valid opinion surely, but one I disagree with. In the last 15 years Cigar, Skip Away and Curlin each won Horse of the Year on the strength of passing significant milestones or benchmarks and each lost the Classic.
    And to my mind, becoming the all-time leading female, continuing a record-matching streak and setting a record for career Grade 1 wins THIS YEAR is equal to matching 16 straight wins or becoming the all-time money earner thanks to the Dubai World Cup.
    What Zenyatta did were unique achievements. What Blame did was win the same races Saint Liam won. Check that, Saint Liam won the Gold Cup. Blame didn’t.

  22. I sware for the life of me I cant understand all you women that seem to want to give the award to Blame. You act as though Zenyatta didnt do a damn thing all year. she won more grade 1 races than he did, What is is with you people, is Seth Hancock paying you all off this year like Jess Jackson bribed and payed you all off last year for RA vote, and look what she came back the following year to prove you screwed that vote up. Go ahead, continue to nominate the wrong horse every year, before long you all wont have no credibility, you all hardly have any now due to all the putting Zenyata down. Pityful is what it is…

    • Carolyn, I think that you must be responding to some post that I didn’t write. Where did I put Zenyatta down? Where did I indicate who should get the award? May I suggest that you go back and read more carefully what I wrote?

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