This year is my first as a voter in the NTRA Top Thoroughbred and Top Three-Year-Old polls. We get guidelines for how to vote: involving talent, performance, the final poll reflecting a likely champion. But, there is still a lot of room for voting philosophy to develop within that — as well there must be, as even the most detailed of voting instructions will never provide a true formula for how to rank the top ten horses in training.
The three-year-old division is, at least, a bit more straightforward. Age, at least, holds constant. For better or worse, the poll tends to center Classic prospects, controlling for surface and distance as well.
In the all-ages poll? It requires comparing horses of different ages, sexes, surfaces, distances. As someone whose philosophy has so often leaned toward appreciating them each for what they are, ranking a top ten all-ages list bent my brain.
Never will voting be easy…but never will voting be as difficult as it was this week for the all-ages poll, I think. It was my first list of the year, my first list ever, the first time I had to shape an amorphous concept of “best horses of the year” into a concrete list…not to mention, to do so this early, when so many in the top echelon had not yet made their first starts of the year.
In light of that, I struggled over whether to include four really good horses on my ballot.
Songbird is Songbird — she’s consistent, she’s majestic to watch, and she proved her mettle against older company when she fell just a nose short of Beholder in the Distaff last year. She’s eligible, since she’s planning a return this year. The one knock against her, the only one that exists, is that she hasn’t faced open company. That still bothers me a bit, when responding to an open-company poll.
Assuming the Bird who comes back at four is the Bird we saw at two and three, she will be in conversation for an older mare championship. Had she skipped the BC and only ever faced three-year-olds last year, I’m not sure I could have put her on the poll at all until she proved herself against older. But, as the clear one to beat in the distaff division, I chose to include her. Would she be higher up the list if she were proven in open company? You bet, but her consistency and her form through Beholder give her a place coming into this season.
Lady Eli, I wondered for similar reasons as Songbird. She lives in the top echelon of the filly and mare turf route division, but hasn’t chanced the boys. She’s back in training. Assuming she comes back like she was last year, Lady Eli goes right back into the discussion for grass mare. So, she goes, but not quite as high as she would if she had faced open company.
Classic Empire has similar restricted-company concerns. He has thus far only faced two-year-olds, and will face three-year-olds all spring. The Holy Bull, the rest of the Derby Trail, there is much to be written. If the three-year-old picture gets murkier over the next few weeks, I may opt not to have a sophomore on my ballot at all. But, until he falters (or tosses his rider again)? Two-year-old champion Classic Empire enters the season clearly the one to beat for three-year-old honours, and is so clearly best of his class that he gets a lower-down spot on my all-ages poll.
California Chrome was the most confounding of anyone. Had the poll been (prematurely) done last week, he’d be a shoo-in — strong form late last year, training up to the Pegasus, one of the two best handicap horses in the division. He was expected to run well on Saturday.
After the Pegasus? The waters get murky. Saturday’s race does not detract from his sparkling career, what he has done in the past. He wasn’t 100% Chrome in that race, and he came out a bit off on one of his legs. His legacy remains. But, the question in the poll is a little different — we’re trying to hone in on the contenders for a championship in 2017.
Had he won, or even finished a gallant second behind Arrogate? He would have gone on my all-ages ballot, at least for a while, until the rest of the handicap division settled itself. Off a faltering ninth-place finish in the Pegasus, and a direct flight to the stud barn? He’s not going to be considered for any kind of championship off that one start, and there won’t be another one. Thus, I couldn’t justify putting him on my ballot.
California Chrome got his due for his excellent career: Champion three-year-old male and Horse of the Year in 2014, champion older dirt male and Horse of the Year in 2016. But, for 2017, the torch has been passed.