‘What if’ questions loom in Horse of Year decision

Not a lot separates the top seven horses in the Hambletonian Society’s weekly poll.

by Brett Sturman

The battle to determine the best harness racing horse in 2017 is a highly contentious one as evidenced by the fact that in the final Hambletonian Society/Breeders Crown poll, five horses are garnering at least one first-place vote.

Any number of the top horses are deserving of the top honor despite none being unbeatably heads and shoulders better than anyone else. For some, it’s been literally a matter of inches in their races throughout the year and it makes you wonder if Horse of the Year may have been in their fortunes if not for the slightest of different outcomes.

At least some amount of reasonable consideration for Horse of the Year can be given to the first seven horses listed in the standardbred final poll. Working backwards to #1, we begin with the 7th rated horse.

Youaremycandygirl crushed (pun intended) her competition almost the entire season, ending her year with seven straight wins highlighted by the She’s A Great Lady, the Three Diamonds and the Breeders Crown. Most noteworthy of all is her 1:50 clocking in her International Stallion Stakes in Lexington, which was the fastest mile paced by a 2-year-old filly EVER.

A winner of nine for 11 on the year, her only two defeats came in her first lifetime start at Vernon when she broke after being interfered with, and then a NYSS race at Yonkers when she faded late at 35 cents on the dollar. The debut race can’t be held against her, but if not for that fluky fifth-place finish at YR she’d be on the outside part of the discussion; she’s dominated her division in style.

Next comes What The Hill, and how big right now is that Hambletonian disqualification? He’s been an up and down horse this year for sure throwing in disappointing races at times including falters in the Matron, Erskine, Bluegrass and Futurity, but he’s nailed all the big ones.

There can’t be too many horses (if any) that have won the Hambletonian and Breeders Crown in the same season and have not won Horse of the Year. He obviously didn’t win the Hambletonian as an official record, but he did cross the line first and was obviously best that day. In addition, he won the Canadian Trotting Classic and capped off the year with the rare feat of defeating older horses in the TVG. It’s not crazy to say that had he been kept up in the Hambletonian, that he would be tough to deny for top honors.

At #5 is Fear The Dragon who did notch one first place vote in the final poll. Had this award been decided a couple of months ago he may have won, and today he likely won’t even hang on for his own division. In many sports, it’s not how you start but how you finish and this is no exception. After impressive PASS wins that was followed up with a North America Cup win, he then went on to win both the Hempt and the Adios.

But after he finished second in the Milstein (no disgrace there) he didn’t fire his best in the Little Brown Jug final and was empty in his Breeders Crown elimination, failing to even make the final. Fear The Dragon still may have been able to salvage a larger say in the award had he been able to beat his nemesis in Progress Pace to close out the year, but he could only manage second best. A Jug win or even a better showing in any number of races to close out the year would have aided his cause.

Next to Fear The Dragon in the poll is Downbytheseaside, and we had the pleasure of watching these two slug it out going back to early in the year. If grit and toughness played into HOY, Downbytheseaside (three first place votes) would have a real chance. His 22 starts this year are far more than anyone else under consideration and despite all his ups and downs through the year, he finished out November a perfect four for four.

His race at Northfield in the Milstein when he went first over through a back half of about :52 to beat Fear The Dragon might be the race of the year in my opinion. He came up a nose short against Huntsville in the Meadowlands Pace and had that race been credited to him to go along with wins in the Rooney, Messenger, Jug Preview, Matron, Progress, Monument Circle, that resume may have been good enough for him to be voted #1. He was also second in the Breeders Crown final in an upset, and that race too would have been a big boost. He’ll end up as 3YO champion.

The top 3 spots are all held by female trotters, beginning with Manchego (four first place votes) in the third spot. With a perfect 12-for-12 record where she was simply too good for her group, it’s not like you can knock her or say what she could have done differently. What she has going for her is that she’s never lost, but that might not be enough as it’s nearly impossible for a 2YO filly trotter to be voted as HOY; it just doesn’t happen. Her mark this year of 1:52.4 is solid, but by comparison the great Mission Brief trotted in a world record 1:50.3 three years ago and even she could do more than win her own division. She’ll get her chances next year.

In the poll’s runner up spot is Ariana G with 13 first-place votes. With a record of 15 12-2-1 things would seem to be in her favor, but I think she’s a victim of how much we’ve come to expect her to dominate her peers over the last two years.

Of her three losses, only one has come against females, which occurred on a day when she wasn’t at her best in the Kentucky Filly Futurity for fillies. The other two came in races against males in the Beal final and in the Zweig; both races of which should still be towards her credit. She did beat the boys in her Beal elimination, but after two losses against male counterparts her connections had seen enough and elected to race her in the Hambletonian Oaks instead of the open Hambletonian. She romped in that race as expected, but a win in the Hambletonian against the boys – something that hasn’t been done since 1996 – would have all but cinched her spot for Horse of the Year. For that matter, a win in either the Zweig or Beal may have done the same.

Hannelore Hanover leads the final USTA poll with 14 first-place votes and is the favorite to win Horse of the Year, largely aided by her world record 1:49:2 mile in the Allerage at Red Mile. She’s racked up many big wins including wins against the boys, but she’s only won 10 of her 17 starts (five-for-five in Canada but just five-for-12 in the U.S.). If there’s anything that could have gone a different way that would have gave her more breathing room in the top spot, it would have been from any of her 5 races where she was runner up.

The race that comes to mind where she was deserving to win but didn’t, was the $250,000 Spirit of Massachusetts at Plainridge when she was unofficially interfered with multiple times and had to settle for second. But in the end it shouldn’t matter. Her race against males in the Maple Leaf Trot was one of the most impressive races of the year and she’s done enough to earn the top honors.

My picks for Horse of the Year would be: Hannelore Hanover, Downbytheseaside and Ariana G in that order.