Who’s Horse of the Year? Trainers weigh in

by | Nov 11, 2016 | Breaking, Racing, Regionwide, Top Stories | 4 comments

Arrogate defeats California Chrome in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Photo by Michael McInally/Eclipse Sportswire/Breeders Cup.

by Ted Black

In the moments immediately after Arrogate upset California Chrome to capture the Grade I, $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita, racing enthusiasts across the country began to speculate how much the results of that event and the 12 Breeders’ Cup races that preceded it would impact the upcoming 2016 Horse of the Year voting.

Heading into the two days of Breeders’ Cup Championship races, onlookers had primarily narrowed the list of Horse of the year contenders down to Songbird, Tepin and California Chrome, while leaving the door slightly ajar for others on the periphery pending an upset. As luck would have it, there were upsets aplenty.

Fittingly enough, Friday’s action set the tone for the debates in motion when Songbird suffered a very narrow defeat – the first of her season and 12-race career – when she was nailed by older rival Beholder in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

Then on Saturday afternoon, Tepin closed willingly but belatedly in the lane and settled for second in the Breeders’ Cup Mile on the turf.  Later, California Chrome was overhauled in the lane by Arrogate in the Classic. In light of earlier setbacks by Songbird and Tepin, a victory by California Chrome in the Classic would have cinched his second Horse of the Year title in the last three seasons.

So who’s Horse of the Year now?  One of the three runners-up?  Or late-arriving Arrogate, who previously had captured the Grade 1 Travers in breathtaking fashion?

Perhaps not surprisingly, area trainers had different takes.

“I still think that California Chrome deserves to be Horse of the Year,” said Hall of Fame trainer King T. Leathebury. “When you look back at what he did over the course of the year, the races he won and the way he won a few of them, I think he still had the better year. That other horse (Arrogate) is awfully talented and he did win two big ones at the end, but I still think California Chrome deserves it. He ran a good race the other day and just got beat.”

Trainer Ollie Figgins, III, only three years removed from saddling Dance To Bristol in the Breeders Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, had a different view of how the Classic effected the Horse of the Year chase.

“You know, I think my vote would go to Arrogate,” Figgins said. “I thought both horses ran well, but the three-year-old beat him fair and square in the biggest race of the year. I know California Chrome had a great year, but Arrogate won the Travers and ran the fastest time for a mile-and-a-quarter up at Saratoga, and that’s really saying something. Those were two big wins to end the season.”

Trainer Jose Corrales, who saddled Bodhisattva in the 2015 Preakness Stakes, was impressed with all of the contenders last weekend.  But, like Leatherbury, he was also willing to give California Chrome the nod for his efforts over the course of the year.

“That was a really good race from both of those horses, but I still think California Chrome should be Horse of the Year,” Corrales said. “I think he had the better year, winning those other Grade I races. I was not impressed with the ride (by Victor Espinosa). I thought he should have let him out a little more earlier and made that other horse move a little sooner. That three-year-old filly (Songbird) ran a great race, too, but I thought her rider (Mike Smith, who was also aboard Arrogate) rode her with a little too much confidence.”

From a statistical standpoint, Songbird finished the year with seven wins and one second-place finish and earnings of over $2.2 million, Tepin won six of eights starts and finished second twice and earned nearly $2 million, and Arrogate won five of six starts and banked over $5 million. California Chrome won six of seven starts and earned over $8 million, running second to Arrogate in his lone setback of the season.

Each is expected to win one Eclipse Award, but only one of them will take home the coveted Horse of the Year title.  The debates will likely continue until the winner is finally announced two months from now.