<
>

Azeri a deserving Horse of the Year?

For me, the 2002 Horse of the Year award was a no-brainer. I went
with a world-class runner who lost only once in a long season and gave a
brilliant performance at Arlington Park on Breeders' Cup day. The envelope,
please: And the winner is ... Rock Of Gibraltar.

What, you expected me to pick Azeri?

Yes, she went 8-for-9 and dominated the Distaff on the same day the
Rock came up short by three-quarters of a length in the Mile. Yes, in the
absence of a standout male, the top female must be considered as the
champion of champions. Still, I have a problem with handing the big trophy
to an animal that left California only twice and beat pretty uninspiring
competition. Her favorite victim was Affluent, who ran second to Azeri three
straight times, which seems less impressive when you realize Affluent is
better on the grass.

While Azeri spent most of the year beating a bunch of second-rate
fillies and mares, Rock of Gibraltar was dominating the world's top turf
milers. The 3-year-old Irish-bred won five straight Group I events in
Ireland, England and France, showing his brilliance on good, yielding and
soft going.

Yes, you say, but The Rock couldn't close the deal in the
Breeders' Cup, finishing second to a 26-1 shot that had never won a Grade I
or a Group I. True, but back in February Azeri ran second to Summer Colony,
who was up the track in the Distaff. I agree that Rock of Gibraltar's timing
was bad, but he had some serious excuses on that cloudy day in the western
suburbs of Chicago.

After breaking slowly from disadvantageous Post 10, Mick Kinane
gave Rock Of Gibraltar much too confident a ride, keeping him wide and far
back. Even though The Rock was 13th of 14 entering the stretch, he still
would have won had not Landseer broken down in front of him at the quarter
pole. After regaining the momentum he lost at a very crucial point in the
race, Ireland's star came flying and showed the world his greatness.

Rock Of Gibraltar passed 11 horses while rocketing the final two
furlongs down the center of the yielding course in about 23 seconds. He
couldn't get to the French shipper Domedriver, who enjoyed a good trip along
the inside and found a hole in midstretch just when he needed it. There was
no doubt who was the better horse, even among those who bet on Domedriver, a
small but happy crew that included me.

I know Azeri will be named Horse of the Year, and by a huge margin.
She would have won even if The Rock had taken the Mile. Yet if you think she
deserves it, ponder this. The last female Horse of the Year, Lady's Secret
in 1986, beat males in a major stakes, something Azeri never attempted. Last
season the University of Connecticut was undefeated and won the NCAA women's
basketball championship. Because the Lady Huskies dominated their category,
does that mean they were a better team than the NBA champion Lakers?

If there were an award for Basketball Team of the Year, would you
have voted for UConn? Of course not, but that's the logic behind making
Azeri Horse of the Year. It doesn't make sense to me.

Here's how I voted on the other Eclipse Awards:

Steeplechaser: Flat Top
This 9-year-old gelding and Mcdynamo were the only jumpers with two
Grade I wins, and Flat Top was 2-for-5 while his rival was 4-for-6. They
never faced each other, so there was no tiebreaker there. Flat Top led in
earnings and finished the year with easy wins in prestigious Grade I's, the
Breeders' Cup Steeplechase and the Colonial Cup.

2-Year-Old Male: Vindication
An easy pick, because he was 4-for-4 and coasted in the Juvenile.
Routed Toccet, his main rival, in the Juvenile. If he trains on and stays
healthy, he has the pedigree to be a force in the classics.

2-Year-Old Filly: Storm Flag Flying
I'd be surprised if this vote isn't unanimous. This killer filly was
4-for-4 and gave her best performance in her toughest race, the Juvenile
Fillies, when she came back to beat Composure after being passed and looking
beaten.

3-Year-Old Male: War Emblem
Winning the Derby and Preakness got the job done for a colt who ran
poorly in the Pacific Classic and Breeders' Cup Classic. The two Triple
Crown wins, plus the Grade I Haskell victory, overshadowed the achievements
of his main rivals, Medaglia d'Oro and Came Home.

3-Year-Old Filly: Farda Amiga
Outstanding wins off layoffs in the Kentucky Oaks and the Alabama
earned the trophy. Finished ahead of her main rival, Take Charge Lady, twice
and was clearly superior at longer distances.

4-year-Old and Up, Male: Left Bank
The ill-fated Left Bank was 3-for-4, running monstrous Beyers of 121
in the 1 1/8-mile Whitney and the 7-furlong Tom Fool. Street Cry (3-for-4)
ran second to him in the Whitney, the last race for both. In the fall,
Volponi (Classic) and Evening Attire (Jockey Club Gold Cup) took advantage
of a weakened handicap division.

4-Year-Old and Up, Female: Azeri
The 4-year-old daughter of Jade Hunter was 8-for-9 and blew away her
overmatched rivals in the Distaff. She'll probably also win Horse of the
Year, although she didn't get my vote there. She had speed, class and
staying power from January through late October.

Sprinter: Orientate
Almost all of the wise guys, including me, tried to beat him in the
Sprint and ended up shredding tickets. Won his last five races, including
two Grade I's, in a 6-for-10 season. Scored at five tracks in a season that
began in January and didn't end until the Breeders' Cup.

3-Year-Old and Up, Male Turf: High Chaparral
You may ask why I gave Horse of the Year to Rock Of Gibraltar but not
the male turf Eclipse. I split the awards between the Aidan O'Brien
stablemates because I thought both deserved to be honored. High Chaparral
was the best distance turfer in Europe and won the Breeders' Cup Turf with
something left. Swept the Epsom-Irish Derby double, and only his close third
off a layoff in the Arc kept him from being undefeated in six races.

3-Year-Old and up, Female Turf: Golden Apples
Never ran a bad one, with a fourth behind Starine in the Filly &
Mare Turf (bad trip, didn't like the soft ground) her only out-of-the-money
finish in seven starts, all in top company. Had a devastating finishing
kick. Couldn't vote for Starine because she was 0-for-3 besides the Filly &
Mare Turf.

Jockey: Jerry Bailey
You could have handed Bailey his sixth Eclipse in August. That's
how much he dominated this year. Won more than 40 stakes and exceeded $19
million in earnings while being very selective, as usual, with his mounts.
Won at a 25-percent rate and almost always was where he should have been in
the big ones and most of the little ones, too.

Apprentice Jockey: Ryan Fogelsonger
Won more than 250 races in Maryland, which has produced so many
outstanding apprentices, going back to Chris McCarron. Fogelsonger was a
force in a very competitive jockey colony that includes standouts Ramon
Dominguez, Mario Pino and Travis Dunkelberger.

Trainer: Bobby Frankel
Like Bailey, Frankel locked up another Eclipse before Labor Day. Is
on pace to break D. Wayne Lukas' 1988 earnings mark of more than $17.8
million and won more than 40 graded stakes. Betting against this Hall of
Famer was rarely wise.

Owner: The Thoroughbred Corporation
Won the Derby, Preakness and Haskell with War Emblem in as strange
a season that a major stable ever had. Three weeks before the Derby, Prince
Ahmed bin Salman bought a colt that might have won the Triple Crown had he
not stumbled badly at the start of the Belmont. The Saudi prince died
unexpectedly in August before War Emblem's final triumph in the Haskell.
Other owners won far more money and many more races, but none had such an
impact on the sport at the top level.

Breeder: Payson Stud
Mrs. Virginia Kraft Payson bred two divisional champions, Farda
Amiga and Vindication, which was good enough to get my vote. Payson Stud was
not among the top 30 breeders in earnings, but I'll take quality over
quantity.