The Week in Review: The Case for Idiomatic as Horse of the Year

Idiomatic | Benoit

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More often than not, when the horses hit the finish line for the last Breeders' Cup race of the day, we know who the Horse of the Year is. Usually, someone has done enough to separate themselves from the pack: Flightline (Tapit), Knicks Go (Paynter), Authentic (Into Mischief). Or no one stepped up to unseat the leading contender going in.

We have nothing of the kind this year. There were plenty of standout performances on Breeders' Cup Day, but that's part of the problem. The leading contenders are so evenly matched on paper that this has turned into one of the most wide-open races for the title in memory.

There are five horses that deserve consideration for Horse of the Year: White Abarrio (Race Day); Cody's Wish (Curlin); Arcangelo (Arrogate); Up to the Mark (Not This Time); Idiomatic (Curlin).

Here are their credentials:

White Abarrio: He won the GI Breeders' Cup Classic and the last three winners of that race have been named Horse of the Year. He has two Grade I wins and they came in two huge spots, the Classic and the GI Whitney S. The knock on him is that's really all there is to his resume. He has just three wins on the year and the third was in an allowance race at Gulfstream.

Cody's Wish: He had another stellar year, topped by his repeat win in the GI Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. He was 4-for-5 on the year with three Grade I wins and another in a Grade II. Was a feel-good story, which probably should count for something. His lone setback on the year came when he tried nine furlongs in the Whitney and was whipped by White Abarrio, losing by 10 lengths.

Arcangelo: The colt and his trainer, the well-spoken and charismatic Jena Antonucci, gave the sport a lift when it really needed one, winning the GI Belmont S. He came right back to win the GI Travers S. and needed one more win, in the Classic, to lock up Horse of the Year. That didn't happen when he had to be withdrawn from the race with a foot issue. Missing the Classic puts him at a disadvantage because so many Breeders' Cup winners have strong credentials. Also the winner of the GIII Peter Pan. S., he has three stakes wins and two Grade I wins on the year.

Up To The Mark: Had he won the GI Breeders' Cup Turf, he would have wrapped up Horse of the Year. But he didn't, losing by three-quarters of a length. He was unlucky to lose. On the winner, Auguste Rodin (Ire) (Deep Impact {Jpn}), jockey Ryan Moore turned in one of the best rides in Breeders' Cup history, saving every inch of ground and daring to go through what was a tight opening on the rail. Even in defeat, Up to the Mark deserves credit for his performance in the Turf. He was beaten by a horse who had won three of the biggest races in Europe in the G1 Irish Champion S., the G1 Irish Derby and the G1 Epsom Derby. Up to the Mark was 5-for-7 on the year and won three stakes, all of them Grade I's.

Idiomatic: Capped off a stellar year by defeating a strong field with a win in the GI Breeders' Cup Distaff. It probably wasn't even her best race as she had to grind every step of the way in the stretch to win in a blanket finish in which four horses were separated by little more than a length at the wire. She got a 96 Beyer, her lowest figure since she was second in the May 6 GI Ruffian S. at Belmont. She was 8-for-9 on the year, won three Grade I's, a Grade II and a Grade III. The Distaff was her fifth straight win. The only knock is that she spent the first part of her year running in allowance races and in the Latonia S. at Turfway Park.

And the winner is?

With apologies to Cody's Wish, Arcangelo, White Abarrio, my vote goes to Idiomatic. Like Cody's Wish and Up to the Mark, she won three Grade I races. No one won more. Like White Abarrio and Cody's Wish, she is a Breeders' Cup winner. What sets her apart from the rest is her overall body of work. Horse of the Year shouldn't always be about who won the Classic or who had the best performance on Breeders' Cup Day. Voters need to give consideration to who had the best year, from start to finish. In an era where five races on the year from a White Abarrio can be considered a full campaign, what Idiomatic did was remarkable. She ran nine times, won eight races and made starts in all but two months, April and September. Top-level horses just don't do that anymore.

It's not easy for a filly or mare to be named Horse of the Year. No one has done it since Havre de Grace (Saint Liam) in 2011 and it's only been done six times since the inception of the Eclipse Awards in 1971. It only happens when there's no no-brainer candidate among the male horses, which was the case this year.

It's a tough call and I have no problem with any of the five horses I've mentioned being named Horse of the Year, but Idiomatic deserves to be recognized for a year unlike anything we've seen in a long time.

More Eclipse Thoughts

I will have a real problem with anyone who votes for Auguste Rodin over Up to the Mark for the male turf championship. Yes, Auguste Rodin beat Up to the Mark in the Turf and, yes, he won three big Group I's in Europe. But these are the championships of American racing and what he did in Europe doesn't matter. Eclipse voters have always given too much consideration to these one-hit wonders who swoop in from Europe and win a Breeders' Cup race. As is the case with Idiomatic, you have to look at a horse's overall body of work and Up to the Mark was the best turf horse this country has produced since Bricks and Mortar (Giant's Causeway), the 2019 Horse of the Year. He is the turf champion.

The Amazing Irad Ortiz Jr.

Irad Ortiz Jr. won three more Breeders' Cup races, giving him 20 for his career and moving him to second place behind Mike Smith, who has won 27 races. What Ortiz has done in such a short period of time is remarkable, and he is on pace to blow apart all Breeders' Cup records for jockeys.

Ortiz didn't have his first Breeders' Cup mount until 2012 and his first Breeders' Cup winner until 2014. He's just 31 and should have at least 20 more good years in front of him. Smith didn't ride his 20th Breeders' Cup winner until he was 48 and it took him 23 years to get there. Ortiz is going to blow right past him on his way to setting records that may never be broken.

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