Is 'Dan' a wise choice?

The idealized Wise Dan, who resides in the collective imagination of his besotted fans, will soon yield to the real version, who returns Saturday in the Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga.

The invincible golden idealized Wise Dan sits regally atop his throne, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's Horse of the Year poll, as he has for much of the year. Palace Malice ascended to the No. 1 spot in the NTRA poll after his victory in the Metropolitan Handicap. But Wise Dan returned to No. 1 after Palace Malice ran poorly in the Whitney. That's the power of an insulated ideal: Wise Dan climbed to the top of the Horse of the Year poll without even racing.

But should he be there? If voters were asked to select the Horse of the Year today, would Wise Dan deserve their vote? Of course not. He has won two races this year, and, frankly, in neither was he as overwhelming as he was in his victories of 2013. California Chrome has won two-thirds of the Triple Crown, as well as the Santa Anita Derby and the San Felipe; Palace Malice has won four major stakes, as have Close Hatches and Untapable -- at this juncture in the season, they're all much more deserving, based on accomplishments, than Wise Dan for any consideration as Horse of the Year.

But there he sits, atop the poll. Wise Dan, of course, was first named Horse of the Year in 2012, when he very much deserved the honor: He won four major stakes at a mile on the turf, including the Breeders' Cup, where he defeated some formidable Europeans, but he also romped in the Ben Ali Stakes at 1 ⅛ miles over Keeneland's synthetic surface, and he probably should have won the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs, also at 1 ⅛ miles, where he finished a head back after a compromising journey. Since 2012, Wise Dan has been the reigning champ. And it's as if some voters have confused horse racing with boxing, where the "champeen," who according to legend whips two bears and a cyclone each morning before breakfast, keeps his title until he's comatose and horizontal in the middle of the ring.

Last year, Wise Dan received 208 of 249 votes for Horse of the Year. He was the overwhelming choice even though there was no historical precedent for selecting a horse that specializes in racing a mile on the turf. But nobody knocked Wise Dan out; his only loss, a runner-up finish, came in a race moved off the turf. And so he kept his title. Nor did he deserve to be named last year's champion older horse, an award that traditionally honors accomplishments on dirt. In this ring, nobody could even take a swing at him: He didn't race on dirt last year.

When Dr. Fager was named both champion turf horse and champion older horse, the awards together honored the versatility of his greatness. (He was also champion sprinter and Horse of the Year, by the way.) Dr. Fager beat the best horses in the world at a variety of distances and on both surfaces. But when Wise Dan was named both champion turf horse and champion older horse, the combination, which seemed a redundancy, not only diminished the accomplishment of horses such as Dr. Fager but also pleaded for clarity. (Henceforth, the Eclipse Award for best older horse should specify that it honor accomplishments in dirt races.)

The point is this: In the absence of a standout, anticipating Horse of the Year is especially difficult because of the besotted voter variable. And, make no mistake, even the most prudent and rational voter can become besotted when the right horse comes along. For many, Wise Dan was that horse: A winner of all but one of his races on turf, he has for three years now epitomized consistency and class.

His returning to compete at the highest level represents yet another inspiring accomplishment for one of the sport's most admirable athletes. From here, though, he would seem a very unlikely candidate to win the sport's highest award, Horse of the Year, for the third consecutive year, but there he sits, atop the poll, a golden ideal and a reigning champion.

Wise Dan hasn't raced since May, when, stricken with severe colic, he had to have emergency surgery. His trainer, Charles LoPresti, a superb horseman, has brought the champ back slowly and patiently. Since mid-July Wise Dan has put in seven serious workouts, the most recent ones prompting LoPresti to announce that the champ is "back to where he was." If that's so, he should win the Bernard Baruch easily. But Wise Dan's a 7-year-old returning from surgery and from a layoff. No horse can outrun time, and the time might have arrived to appreciate the actual Wise Dan rather than an idealized champion.

And there's another champ out there, a younger and sexier one, who from here looks like the new favorite to be Horse of the Year. When Shared Belief, last season's juvenile champion, defeated older horses while winning the Pacific Classic at Del Mar by nearly three lengths, he gave what was arguably, since he had to overcome some early trouble, the best performance of the season. And it was backlit by profound possibilities: The black bandersnatch is the sport's next superstar, and as a gelding he could be a marquee performer for years. Unbeaten in six races, he seems to step forward with each appearance, and he has given superior efforts as the distances of his races have stretched out.

At this point, with only three races this year, Shared Belief hasn't accomplished as much as California Chrome. Nor has he proven he can transfer his Pacific Classic effort from Del Mar's synthetic surface to the dirt. But Santa Anita's estimable odds-maker, Jon White, already has said that if the Breeders' Cup Classic were imminent, he'd make Shared Belief the 9-5 favorite in the morning line.

And if he wins the Classic, he's almost certainly Horse of the Year.

The Race for Horse of the Year, with odds and comments

1. Shared Belief (5-2): He'll probably have one race prior to the Classic, the Awesome Again Stakes on Sept. 27 at Santa Anita.

2. California Chrome (3-1): Unraced since the Belmont, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner is aimed at the Pennsylvania Derby. He was very good in May, and as a more mature 3-year-old he could very well step forward this fall.

3. Palace Malice (7-2): He looked like the best horse in the country for much of the year, but then he ran sixth in the Whitney. Since then, he has had two workouts that, by his standards, were rather dull; so he's skipping Saturday's Woodward to wait instead for the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Sept. 27. But will he return to form by then? In a short time, he has regressed from best horse to biggest mystery.

4. Wicked Strong (20-1): Second in the Travers, he would have to win both the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Classic to have any chance for the Golden Eclipse Award.

5. Wise Dan (20-1): The reigning Horse of the Year returns Saturday at Saratoga, and if he can run the table, concluding with a Breeders' Cup victory, he'd be in the Horse of the Year discussion, especially if there's an upset in the Classic.

6. Tonalist (25-1): He might have finished better than third in the Travers with a more patient approach, but like Wicked Strong he'd have to beat older horses twice to have any chance.

7. Will Take Charge (30-1): He's also skipping the Woodward to focus instead on the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

8. Lea (30-1): Entered in the Bernard Baruch, he'll race Saturday only if wet weather forces the race off the turf. He performed sensationally the first two months of the year, but hasn't raced since winning the Donn. Could he become a factor late in the year? Well, Bill Mott is his trainer. Lea has looked very sharp in his morning preparations over the Oklahoma Training Track in Saratoga and is obviously poised for a return.

9. Moreno (30-1): He has won only once this year, but his timing was admirable: He won the Whitney. If he adds a victory in Saturday's Woodward to his resume, he'll suddenly look like a possible Classic contender.

10. Close Hatches (30-1): Unbeaten this year, she has displaced Beholder, at least for the moment, atop the division; but it's hard to imagine her being a factor in the race for Horse of the Year unless she takes on males, which seems unlikely.

11. Untapable (30-1): She has completely dominated her division, her only loss coming against males when she couldn't overcome the inside speed bias at Monmouth Park. Like Close Hatches, though, she would probably need to beat males to put herself in the Horse of the Year discussion, and that seems unlikely. She'll make her next start Sept. 20 in the Cotillion. A Close Hatches-Untapable meeting in the Distaff could be one of the highlights of the Breeders' Cup.

12. All others (10-1): This would include Main Sequence, who has won two major stakes since coming here to become one of the leading contenders for the Breeders' Cup Turf, as well as Game On Dude, who's still capable of winning a big one, Hardest Core, who won the Arlington Million and is unbeaten this year, and Competitive Edge, the sensational 2-year-old who'll be an overwhelming favorite to win Monday's Hopeful Stakes.