final NTRA poll thoughts

I voted in the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll for the first time this year.  Some weeks were more difficult than others, but this week’s was the most brain-busting of all.

I had assumed all year that it would be the easiest.  After all, Breeders’ Cup is the big ending, and it’s the last poll of the year.  Though Breeders’ Cup is not the last big racing week before the Eclipse Awards — let’s not sneeze at Thanksgiving weekend, with races like the Clark and the Cigar Mile — it’s the only one of this scale, and nothing between now and the end of the year comes quite to the level of a Derby undercard, Belmont undercard, or Travers Day.

Yet?  It was the hardest.  Though Breeders’ Cup answered a lot of questions in individual divisions, the fact that the Top Thoroughbred Poll requires a voter to rank the divisions against each other makes it more difficult.  Most of my questions involved assessing not only what each horse did in their own division this year, but also how that stacks up against what horses in other divisions did.  Even with a rather sharp limitation that I’ve chosen to apply, that of not using horses who have not faced older company at least once during the year, many of the rank judgments felt uncomfortably tight.

Here’s my final ballot, with short notes on my rationale.

  1. Gun Runner – Unlike so many votes, this one wasn’t hard.  For better or worse, the Classic dirt division is the prestige division in the United States, and Gun Runner proved on Saturday that he is doubtless the top of that division.  He did nothing wrong all year, and his only loss came behind a downright freakish Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup (G1).  Since then he romped in a trio of Grade 1s at Churchill and Saratoga, and then answered the “head-to-head with Arrogate at ten furlongs” question so loudly in the affirmative at the Breeders’ Cup that it would be a shock not to see him win Horse of the Year.
  2. World Approval – He entered the year a likely player in the older male turf route division, and an easy win in the Dixie (G2) had him primed to move back into that division in which he factored last year.  But, after a disappointing tilt at the Manhattan (G1) in June, trainer Mark Casse cut him back to a mile.  Magic happened…well, to the extent that one can call it magic that a son of Win Approval takes well to a mile.  He beat Time Test cozily in the Fourstardave (G1).  Then, he put up an absolute monster effort in the Woodbine Mile: battling the pace with a pair of horses who finished last (Dragon Bay) and next-to-last (Deauville), he kicked clear to win with authority.  Then, a decisive victory in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) left no doubt as to the identity of North America’s top turf male.
  3. Forever Unbridled – She was as difficult to rank as Gun Runner was easy to rank.  She only ran three times this year, and from that vantage point, I still wonder whether I overrated her by placing her third.  But, she made the most of those three starts, establishing herself the   Though the field in the Fleur de Lis (G2) back in June wasn’t the toughest, she beat them comfortably in her first start of the year, priming her for better things.  Game.  In a four-horse Personal Ensign (G1), she closed from a clear last to nail Songbird — who had an easy lead — at the wire.  Set.  In the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, she found her late run once again, and it never looked like Abel Tasman was going to catch her before the wire.  Match.
  4. Collected – Collected was tough, because he is not going to win any divisional championships.  Gun Runner took care of that by beating him in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  Collected will be a strong second in the older dirt male Eclipse race, and may even be second in Horse of the Year on the strength of that.  But, with no likely Eclipse of his own, it was difficult to put him ahead of the putative male turf champion and the putative distaff champion.  Though the strength of Collected’s first half of the season was a bit questionable, he did win all three starts before the Pacific Classic (G1), then beat Arrogate in the Pacific Classic, and finished off by running a never-give-up second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).  Though a better horse in Gun Runner beat him on the square, he raced all the way to the wire, and never gave West Coast a chance to catch him for place.  If he was going to lose at all this year, that was about as good a loss as he could have had given Gun Runner’s superiority.
  5. Beach Patrol – The male turf route division was a bit of a revolving door for the first half of the year, but during that period, Beach Patrol was the one who kept hitting the board against that changing cast of characters.  That alone would not be enough to rate him this high — but, the tenor changed the second half of the season.  Beach Patrol broke through for his first Grade 1 win against older horses in the Arlington Million.  Then, he dismantled his foes in the Joe Hirsch (G1).  He finished his season a credible, game second against French-trained raider Talismanic in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), cementing his position as the best among the American turf route set.  It won’t be enough to win him a championship — World Approval made sure of that — but it gives him a strong second in the open turf division, and he held good form all year long.
  6. Lady Eli – Though beaten a neck by an in-form Dickinson in the Jenny Wiley (G1), her first race of the year, she then rattled off three straight victories through the summer.  That work included an uncharacteristically wide 1 1/2 length winning margin in the Ballston Spa (G2), a race in which she turned the tables on Dickinson.  Though Lady Eli did not run to her previous form in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, one can only wonder how much better she would have done if her leg had not been injured in the race.  The rest of her season was not only consistently good, but also the only clarity the filly and mare turf division had.
  7. Abel Tasman – The highest-ranked three-year-old on my ballot, and the only logical choice for champion three-year-old filly, Abel Tasman epitomized class and consistency in an otherwise muddled division all year long.  Second behind Unique Bella in the G3 Santa Ysabel to start the year, she raced in Grade 1 company for the rest of the year.  Abel Tasman was never out of the exacta in seven 2017 starts, and her three wins included her division’s marquee race, the Kentucky Oaks (G1).  She only ran against older mares once, but a close second behind Forever Unbridled in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) proved she could take that step.
  8. Arrogate – It was a tale of two seasons for Arrogate.  The beginning of his year was otherworldly: he notched a commanding victory in the Pegasus World Cup (G1), and then put forth the most impressive effort of any American horse all year long when he won the Dubai World Cup (G1).  But, he didn’t look the same horse when he returned the second half of the year.  His San Diego Handicap (G2) was a non-effort, and though he improved next out, he couldn’t catch Collected in the Pacific Classic (G1).  A return to winning form in the Breeders’ Cup Classic would have clinched Horse of the Year, but he failed to fire and finished fifth.  Arrogate’s two wins dazzled, and got him a spot on the top ten.  Arrogate’s disappointing second half relegates him near the bottom of that list.
  9. Roy H – As much as I wondered whether I over-ranked Forever Unbridled, I wondered whether I under-ranked Roy H.  By all rights, his victory in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) clinched champion sprinter honours.  He started the year with a pair of wins in allowance company, but then did everything he reasonably could once he stepped into graded company this year.  He won the True North (G2) and the Santa Anita Sprint Championship (G1), and it’s no stretch to think he would have beaten Ransom the Moon in the Bing Crosby (G1) had he not been pushed out by the riderless Drefong.  But, between the sprint division’s lack of depth and the fact that he did not start the year in stakes company, it was difficult to rank him higher than any of the horses above him here.
  10. West Coast – West Coast should win champion three-year-old.  None of the Triple Crown race winners did much after the Classic season was older, whereas West Coast didn’t have a bad outing in nine starts this year.  Though he did not face the top level in the first half of the year, he emerged in time to dominate his division through the summer and fall.  He won both the Travers (G1) and the Pennsylvania Derby (G1) with authority.  West Coast tried older for the first time in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  Had he won it, or looked a threat to Gun Runner or Collected, I may have ranked him higher.  He didn’t, but his third was a credible enough first try against top-quality older horses.  Between that and his putative divisional championship, that’s enough for at least token recognition in my end-of-the-year list.

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