In search of a champion

It was one of those years. While racing folk have spent decades in frustrated search of a genuine star and found few, the hunt could not possibly have gotten more far afield than it did in 2012.

Consider the year recently passed in this light: The likely champion 3-year-old and finalist for Horse of the Year was infirm and retired before the Belmont Stakes and while winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, both in hair-raising finishes, is certainly not a trivial accomplishment, it is not the stuff worthy of a horse judged to be a champion over the course of a season's competition.

It gets more unlikely.

Wise Dan, a very good horse indeed but one without a clearly defined division, is the likely Horse of the Year.

While he did sustain a campaign that concluded with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Mile, Wise Dan did not win a race beyond eight furlongs and was successful only on grass. He is, meanwhile, unworthy to be voted Male Turf Champion over Little Mike, who won the Arlington Million and Breeders' Cup Turf, the two most important international races run in the United States.

If it is not remembered for the caliber of competition that unfolded during the season, 2012 will be infamous for the incongruity of judgment that followed in the wake of the running.

The list of Eclipse Award finalists issued last week was mildly surprising -- okay, shocking -- for the absence of Royal Delta, the presumptive champion older female, from a trio of Horse of the Year finalists that includes I'll Have Another, the aforementioned Derby and Preakness winner, who now resides in Japan, and Wise Dan. The other, Fort Larned, winner of the Whitney Handicap, Breeders' Cup Classic and presumptive champion older male, at least brings fodder for argument to the table.

Meanwhile, Royal Delta, a champion Breeders' Cup winner in 2011, concluded her season with back-to-back career-defining victories, one of each coast, and defeated a field in the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic that included two undefeated champions and was widely regarded as perhaps the strongest field in the race's 29-year history.

In the cold light of a winter day, there was no true champion 3-year-old of 2012 and it is not beyond question to consider the possibility of leaving that title and the Horse of the Year crown vacant particularly in light of the bizarre slight of Royal Delta. There is, however, no mechanism for departure from the norm in the current system -- a strong basis for argument for a much smaller, select body of voters empowered to arrive as such a decision at the end of a meeting, but those who participate in this poll defend the privilege as they would a beloved family member.

Still, considering that this nation's daily newspapers support only two full-time racing journalists, one trade publication of national scope and a handful of regional publications, there are far too many people voting in these post-season polls.

The Horse of the Year should be a champion among champions and Wise Dan, a good horse among faces of good horses in the crowd, a high-class grass-course miler, fails to qualify. He was tough and determined in 2012, one of several, and less than superior is insufficient. His elevation to Horse of the Year would be the first instance in which a horse might win no divisional championship but would be declared the best thoroughbred of the season. If he is voted male turf course champion over Little Mike, the entire process would lapse into travesty.

Otherwise, if the sport failed to produce a horse for the ages in 2012, the various other Eclipse categories appear cut and dry.

Two-year-old male: Shanghai Bobby
Two-year-old filly: Beholder
Three-year-old male: (Vacant)
Three-year-old filly: My Miss Aurelia
Older Male: Fort Larned
Older Female: Royal Delta
Male Sprinter: Trinniberg
Female Sprinter: Groupie Doll
Male Turf Horse: Little Mike
Female Turf Horse: Zagora
Horse of the Year: (Vacant)

The good news: Soon, the process begins anew.

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at pmoran1686@aol.com.