The Eclipse Awards for the champions in the various divisions of Thoroughbred horse racing and the award for Horse of the Year are determined by the voters from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (comprised of Equibase and racing secretaries), the Daily Racing Form, and the National Turf Writers Association. These three organizations do not vote as blocks and therefore do not each constitute one-third of the weighting. Voting by block was eliminated in 2002.

According to Jim Gluckson of NTRA: “The best way to describe this [voting procedure] is to forget the blocks… The voting in all categories is one person, one vote. The highest number of first place votes wins. All voters are treated the same.”

For the 2009 Horse of the Year, there were 269 eligible voters (229 voted), broken down as follows: The National Turf Writers Association had 142 eligible voters (52.8% of the voters); the Daily Racing Form had 58 eligible voters (21.6%); Equibase had 31 eligible voters (11.5%); and racing secretaries had 38 eligible voters (14.1%). Thus over half of the eligible voters came from the National Turf Writers Association.

The Rachel Alexandra/Zenyatta debate over Horse of the Year was inevitable because of the vagueness of the criteria for making the selection and the total reliance on human opinion. Was the overall 2009 record of the filly Rachel Alexandra–especially in the stakes races where she defeated males–sufficient to offset the undefeated mare Zenyatta’s Breeders’ Cup Classic victory, the only race in which she ran against males? No standardized metrics were employed to assist in answering this question. Human judgment was the sole determinant.

The closest sport to horse racing in the way that its champions are determined is the top level of collegiate football (called the Football Bowl Subdivision or FBS). In every other college sport, the champion is decided through an extensive elimination playoff system. Like horse racing, in FBS college football there is no playoff system wherein teams are eliminated in a tournament until a champion remains. Only the top-two ranked FBS teams play.

College football has attempted to take much of the subjectivity out of crowning a champion by instituting an elaborate procedure, based on the results of two human polls and six computer rankings. CBS Sports explains the methodology:

“To derive a team’s poll percentages in the Harris Interactive and the USA Today polls, each team’s point total is divided by a maximum 2825 possible points in the Harris Interactive Poll and 1525 possible points in the USA Today poll. [The Harris Interactive College Football Poll consists of votes cast by 114 former players, coaches and administrators, and current and former members of the media. These panelists are randomly selected from 300 nominations submitted by FBS Conference offices and their member schools. The USA Today poll is comprised of the weekly votes of 59 coaches at FBS universities.]”

Six computer rankings calculated in inverse points order (25 for #1, 24 for #2, etc.) are used to determine the overall computer component. The best and worst ranking for each team is dropped, and the remaining four are added and divided by 100 (the maximum possible points) to produce a Computer Rankings Percentage. The six computer ranking providers are Anderson & Hester, Richard Billingsley, Colley Matrix, Kenneth Massey, Jeff Sagarin, and Peter Wolfe. Each computer ranking accounts for schedule strength in its formula.

The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) grand mean is calculated by averaging the percent totals of the Harris Interactive and USA Today polls, and computer rankings.

The FBS university presidents are continually under pressure to abandon the system in favor of a playoff among eight or more teams. However, absent a tournament, the present system has worked reasonably well in winnowing the FBS teams down to the two that will play for the championship.

Horse of the Year methodology could and should be addressed in the same manner that college football selects which teams will play in the championship game. This would be fairly easy to do by weighting races and combining a horse’s year-end point totals in these races with the subjective voting of NTRA/Equibase, the Daily Racing Form, and the National Turf Writers Association. For instance, a Grade I race open to horses of both sexes and all ages would merit so many points, a Grade I race restricted by sex and age would be of lesser value, unless it was a classic, and so on. Say, for purposes of illustration, that the subjective voting constituted half of the outcome and the metric ratings comprised the other half. This would reward a horse for its body of work over the entire year, yet would allow for human insights to count, as is the case in major-college football.

Any system for awarding Horse of the Year is inevitably going to have some people complaining about its inequities. Yet a technique that identifies in advance what the criteria are and how they are weighted enables horse owners to plan their campaigns around the races that matter most.

Even then, there would remain a fundamental contradiction in the way Horse of the Year is determined. The Breeders’ Cup World Championships purport to crown “world champions” in actual racetrack competition, rather than by a vote. Yet it is possible for the Horse of the Year not to run in these races, as occurred for 2009 with Rachel Alexandra. It is hard to fathom how Horse of the Year can not come from among the world champions if one accepts the premise that the Breeders’ Cup is really deciding world championships. That is like proclaiming that a team not participating in the Super Bowl or World Series is the “Franchise of the Year.”

This same kind of inconsistency exists in professional boxing, with multiple organizations sanctioning different champions in the same weight class.

There are three courses of action: (1) Breeders’ Cup can exise the word “world”  from the title of its year-end championships, or (2) Breeders’ Cup and the Eclipse Awards’ groups can stipulate that the Horse of the Year must come from among the world champions, or (3) both groups can just continue with the contradiction. Given the penchant of the various organizations in racing not to coordinate, number 3 seems to be the most likely outcome.

Try explaining to a person who is not a racing fan how Horse of the Year is a higher accolade than World Champion. Or vice versa. If this is confusing to people who follow racing closely, imagine how confusing  it is to the casual fan. Maybe it is meaningless to all but racing insiders and the most dedicated fans and therefore does not count for much in the scheme of things.

To complicate matters further, one can make a compelling case that Sea the Stars was World Champion and Horse of the Universe for 2009 and the outstanding racehorse in the first decade of the 21st century.

Copyright © 2010 Horse Racing Business


  1. The real solution is to be honest as to what Horse of the Year truly represents.

    I was shocked to discover this year that the voting pool was so small and represented in large part people who may have had personal agendas, like that famous handicapper who had his head handed to him when he blew the BC Classic this year big time.

    The fact that such a large percentage of voters didn’t even bother to show up to the polls speaks volumes.

    I would suggest adding a substantial “public” component to the mix… while still subjective, it would at least offer a bit of balance to the a process that is so heavily weighted toward the bettors and handicappers.

  2. Frank Lancelotti says

    First, it was the Breeders Cup that opinoned “World Championship”. The best from all over the world rarely raced in the Breeders Cup. Using “World Championship” is a marketing tool much like world’s best hamburger. Also, when you have a championship it should be raced on the same kind of surface as the majority of contestents have raced, eliminating synthetic. A synthetic surface is an individual surface unto itself, as is grass, an dirt. You cannot crown a champion racing on a preferred surface at the expense of those not racing on their preferred surface. bottom line — the Breeders Cup IS NOT a world championship. It is a misnomer, stolen to boost dollars at the dexpense of creditability. As a “World Championship”, how many Horse of the Year winners have raced outside the U.S., even once. Further, one race, again, one race, does not crown a champion. A true champion is DEVELOPED over a period of time, through extraordinary accomplishments, plural. Horse racing is NOT similar to any other sport, further, Horse Of The Year should never be awarded on the basis of one race.

  3. If racing is to go on until the year is over, then every race should be used for the vote. This comment about synthetics is getting old as both have run and won on different surfaces. It was the distance that Jackson truly objected. The horses that were 1-2 in the Derby last year had success on synthetics. A graded stakes at SA last weekend, horses 2nd and 3rd were dirt horses first start on synthetics. Those are just a few to prove the synthetic surface is not always detrimental to dirt horses…handicappers who can’t handicap on it, maybe. Remember these surfaces started on the concept they would save horses lives not the human need. In most cases, the injuries are there but not as catastrophic as the one we just witnessed yesterday at the Big A with both sesamoids snapping or the Barbaro, Pine Island and 8 Belles incidents.( all on dirt tracks, two at Churchill)
    Weight, all graded stakes accompishments, competition levels of all horses who particiapate and where they go from there, (the Woodward group were from what I found, not multiple grade 1 winners and Pass the Points ran two weeks ago and could not beat a grade 3 group, before the HOTY was even announced) and if they need the vote to include 8 different tracks with victories to win HOTY then it needs to be stated. If Goldie can win in one US race which happened to be a BC, then any horse is eligible as well. Voters need to be equal in knowledge of all the horses nominated not just their favorite. Actually, watch all of their races.The names on the turf list were commical at best as I recognized their names and know their knowledge base. I also felt is was rude of some of those voters making up their minds in Setember…if that is allowed then racing should end in September and that being the last race month to be included in the voting process thus ending racing until the beginning of the new year.