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Gary West: Curlin is Horse of the Year

Just to get a new perspective, I stood on my head. I turned the situation upside down, I turned it sideways and inside-out, I tried looking through sunglasses and rose-colored glasses and even wine glasses, from above and below, and still I couldn’t see Zenyatta as Horse of the Year.

I wanted to see it. More than I ever wanted to see Big Foot or aliens, I wanted to see the big unbeaten filly with a golden Eclipse Award, and so I stared off into the distance and strained until a blood vessel popped out alarmingly on my forehead. But something always blocked my view: Curlin.

Despite his fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and despite some rather imaginative efforts to picture the contrary, Curlin is still the Horse of the Year. Quite simply, he accomplished more than any other horse that raced in North America.

Almost since the very moment Raven’s Pass ran by Curlin in the Santa Anita stretch, critics have rushed forward to question the champion’s bona fides, as if they had been waiting months for just the opportunity, as though his defeat satisfied that desire in all of us to see the mighty humbled.

But even if you refuse to grant Curlin a dispensation because in the Classic he was racing on a synthetic surface for the first time, he’s still Horse of the Year. After all, he became the richest horse ever to race in North America and the first to earn more than $5.million in consecutive seasons.

In 1996, Cigar won five of eight races, including the Dubai World Cup and two other Grade I events. He lost his final two races, however, finishing second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Still, he was Horse of the Year, in part because he moved to the top of the earnings list.

Curlin’s 2008 campaign was arguably better than Cigar’s 1996 season. Curlin won five of seven, including the Dubai World Cup and three other Grade I events. When he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup, he moved by Cigar to the top of the North American earnings list.

But some have suggested that a victory in the Dubai World Cup suddenly shouldn’t be included in the equation. Why? It was important in 1996.

Shouldn’t everything Curlin accomplished be considered in determining his worthiness for an award that honors American horses?

He is, after all, an American horse, based here and bred here. And isn’t traveling halfway around the globe to beat some of the world’s best a great accomplishment, and not something to be ignored?

And strain as I might, I can’t find any convincing argument for Zenyatta’s winning the award. That isn’t to diminish her accomplishments.

The best filly in the country, she won four Grade I races and earned $2,090,580 this year.

But Curlin earned more than twice as much, and he defeated more than twice as many top horses traveling from one end of the country to the other and halfway around world.

Zenyatta, of course, was unbeaten in seven races. But if perfection were the only standard, then Peppers Pride, who has won 17 consecutive races, should be considered.

Zenyatta never took on males, as did most of the fillies who have been honored with Horse of the Year in the past, and she raced outside of California only once.

Her accomplishments, although considerable, weren’t as great as Curlin’s simply because the ambition wasn’t.

World championships?

How can we have a world championship in horse racing?

A reader in Australia recently asked that question.

If synthetic surfaces aren’t entirely fair to American horses accustomed to racing on dirt, and if dirt surfaces aren’t entirely fair to European horses accustomed to racing on turf, then how can we ever have a world championship that’s fair to everyone?

We can’t. And it’s probably a mistake, or at the very least impractical, in this instance, to aspire to such an unreachable goal.

Years ago, the Breeders’ Cup assumed a hegemony 8over the Eclipse Awards, which are North America’s championships.

And in recent years, the event’s organizers announced their global ambitions by calling the Breeders’ Cup the World Championships of horse racing.

But given the variety of surfaces and circumstances around the world, can any single race ever be entirely fair to all competitors — those from Europe, Japan, Hong Kong, South America, Australia, New Zealand and, of course, America? It would be folly to think so.

That’s why championships, world or otherwise, should be determined by a body of work, a season of accomplishments.

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