RINALDO DEL GALLO, III:
I enjoyed reading today’s opinion piece, “Dissecting My Eclipse Ballot” by your managing editor, Alan Carasso. With regards to votes for the Eclipse award for 2-year old (champion) Mr. Carasso writes: “More shocking is that there were three abstentions. Huh?”
I respectfully suggest that these abstentions are not enigmatic, let alone shocking. There are many who question giving end of the year honors to horses that run so little, and the increasing trend is for 2-year old’s to not run that often.
The 2015 winner Nyquist ran five times. The 2014 winner American Pharoah ran three times (two stakes). The 2013 winner Shared Belief ran in three races (two stakes); the 2012 winner Shanghai Bobby ran four times; the 2011 winner Hansen ran three times (two stakes); 2010 winner Uncle Mo ran three times (two stakes). You have to go back to the 2009 winner Looking at Lucky to find a horse that ran at least six times.
This is not just a recent phenomenon: Seattle Slew was elected 2-year old champion with just three starts. Born in 1970, Secretariat raced six times when he was elected Horse of the Year (not just 2-year old champion) for his 2-year old campaign. But this is to be contrasted with La Prevoyante’s 2-year old season (she was also born in 1970), which somehow did not beat Secretariat for Horse of the Year with her 12 wins from 12 races.
The decreasing number of 2-year old starts is not a given. The late part of the 19th Century and early part of the 20th Century saw the acme of horses bred for precocity and speed at short distances–it was the culmination of a trend that had been exhibited since the foundation horses of the breed. To this day, we still call horses four and under colts or fillies, and older ones “horses” or mares. Four year olds and under were not considered fully developed, and at longer races, such as modern steeple chasing, this proves true.
While there are exceptions (Menow), the records shows that horses ran far more often as two year olds in the early half of the 20th Century, at least at the top levels. In 1919, at two, Man O’War won eight stakes and came in second in another. The recently Hall of Fame inducted Billy Kelly, as a 2-year-old, compiled a record of 14-2-0 from 17 starts in 1918. Of the undefeated Colin’s 15 wins, 12 were as a 2-year old. All 13 of the undefeated Tremont’s victories were in 1886 when he was a 2-year-old. For 2-year old retrospective honors, Count Fleet won 10 of his 15 races in 1942. Retrospective 1930 2-year-old champion Equipoise ran 16 times that year. In 1922, Zev won nine of 12 races for 2-year old respective honors. Retrospective 1887 2-year old champion Emperor of Norfolk raced 18 times.
If one looks at The Jockey Club’s fact sheet, one sees an undeniable direction: In 1988, 2 year olds raced on average 4.0 times, whereas in 2014, they started on average of 3.1 times. It is understandable why a voter might want to abstain from voting on a horse that had such few starts.
During the end of the 19th Century and the early part of the 20th century, it was then lamented by many in the industry that so many horses were being raced as 2 year olds and being raced before full development. Today, there is a lively debate about the desirability of 2-year-old horses racing, and not all the science shows it’s bad for the horse or that it shortens their racing careers.
While I believe it may be for the best that 2 year olds are running less, it makes complete sense to me that someone would chose to abstain from voting for 2-year-old (champion) when the possible contenders have only run three to five times. The 1977 2-year-old champion Affirmed ran nine times, won seven times, and faced Aydar six times. That is a meaningful record for which to cast a vote.