Late start may not affect Horse of the Year balloting

by Bob Heyden

Many of the best horses of 2020 have not yet performed. But, it might not be a problem when it comes time at year’s end to determine the Horse of the Year. Consider the last four decades.

On July 5, 2014, JK She’salady debuted and would run the table at 12-for-12, enough to edge out Sweet Lou for year-end honors.

On June 29, 2007, Donato Hanover continued his long winning streak that he began at 2 with a victory at the Meadowlands. He would not leave the Big M until after winning the Hambletonian. He returned to finish the year in East Rutherford and it would be the only track where he would taste defeat at 3. He was an easy choice for Horse of the Year. All 19 wins career came consecutively.

On June 28, 1987, Mack Lobell made his sophomore debut by dominating the Yonkers Trot. Chuck Sylvester thought Mack Lobell earned a sizable rest after a 20-start 2-year-old season that saw him earn year-end honors. He posted an even better 3-year-old season, setting the new Hambletonian record and almost nailing down the Triple Crown, if not for Napoletano.

On June 23, 2012, Chapter Seven made his 4-year-old debut and turned it into the Horse of the Year award despite making just 10 starts — the fewest ever for a HOY. In those 10 starts, Chapter Seven recorded eight wins, a 1:50.1 world record and had a first over romp in the Breeders Crown against Europe’s best.

On June 22, 1979, Niatross would start his career at Vernon Downs. The last pacer — or horse — to be named HOY at both 2 and 3, Niatross ran the table as a freshman with a 13-for-13 campaign.

On June 11, 1997 Malabar Man began his sophomore campaign with high expectations off an award-winning freshman season that culminated in a Breeders Crown score. Amateur driver Mal Burroughs did a great job with the son of $500,000 yearling Supergill, and Malabar Man earned the Horse of the Year award for Burroughs and trainer Jimmy Takter, who would win the HOY three straight years with Moni Maker capturing it in 1998 and 1999.

On June 10, 2006 Glidemaster started his Triple Crown-winning season for Blair Burgess. He won the Hambletonian on Aug. 8 and 108 days later the Yonkers Trot on Nov. 25 (the longest spread ever for the trotting Triple Crown). Glidemaster won 65.9 per cent of his record-setting total of $1,918,701 in Triple Crown races ($1,265,690). Compare that to Niatross in 1980, whose $292,557 earned in just Triple Crown races that year represented just 14.7 per cent of his then record total of $1.414,313 for a single season.

On June 4, 2009, Muscle Hill debuted as a 3-year-old and never tasted defeat, completing his career with 20 straight wins and the Horse of the Year title.

On June 1, 2002, Real Desire started his 4-year-old campaign, and first without Bettors Delight across the ring, and won 10 of 13 to take down the HOY hardware. Blair Burgess won the HOY title with a pacer and a trotter four years apart in 2002 and 2006 (with Glidemaster).

Others who started a touch later and won the HOY were: Artsplace at 4, who started on May 30 and went 16-for-16 and Fancy Crown, who began on May 26, 1984 for Ted Andrews and Billy O’Donnell.

Have we seen the last HOY with 30 or more starts?

It certainly looks like it. It has not happened in the 21st century. In fact, it has not happened in 31 years, despite the fact that seven horses, eight times in history have won the HOY after seasons with 30 or more starts.

Here’s the list:

1952 — Good Time had 33 starts. He also won the HOY in 1949 at age 3 with just 19 starts (19 15-2-1).

1954 — Stenographer, the only filly on the list, was 32 23-2-1 and outpointed Scott Frost despite his getting one more first-place vote than she (24-23).

1970 — Fresh Yankee, the only mare on this list, was never worse than second 31 20-11-0 at age 7.

1976 — Keystone Ore won 22 of 33 starts (nine seconds and a third also), giving Stanley Dancer his record seventh HOY trophy.

1978 — Abercrombie finished with the exact same wins and starts as Keystone Ore (22-for-33), with six seconds and three thirds. He was so tough he raced from the first week of May until the second week of November — 27 weeks, racing 33 times and going double heats at eight different tracks. He had 14 starts in August and September alone.

1982 — Cam Fella is the only one on this list to do this twice (1982 and 1983). He had 33 starts as a sophomore with 28 victories and a pair of seconds. Cam won in all 11 months he raced — January through November.

1983 — Cam Fella only started 2-for-8 as a 4-year-old, but then rattled off 28 straight to end his career with a HOY record of 36 starts and 30 wins.

1989 — Matts Scooter is the last horse to do this. He had 30 starts in 1989 with 23 of them victories.

Only 10.9 per cent of the 72 HOY trophies have gone to horses who answered the call 30 or more times during their award winning season. Everyone on this list won at least 20 times.