An air of apprehension is hanging over harness racing fans as we await the results of the Dan Patch voting for Horse of the Year and Pacer of the Year. The entire process is imbued with Irony—a literary technique depicting an incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs. Just as Dorothy and her pals assumed the Wizard was a powerful soothsayer who could send her home and make them whole, the fans assume the Dan Patch voters are knowledgeable and caring individuals who will weigh the evidence carefully before rendering a fair and equitable verdict. Truth be told, many of them don’t even follow the sport: In 2011 only 57% of those who received a ballot bothered to cast a vote for HOY. Last year 146 of 184 HOY ballots were returned—close to 80%. Four out of five would be very good in a presidential election, but not in a case like this where it’s all in the hands of a couple of hundred USHWA members and a handful of racing secretaries. In 2011 fewer than four in ten bothered to return ballots for the awards honoring the two-legged set; last year that figure jumped to six in ten. So if you’re waiting for this bunch to tell you who merits POY recognition save your anticipation for something more worthwhile.
Does it make sense to continue using this system to determine which horses and people deserve to be singled out and honored? Let's look at last year's voting pattern. It’s tough to make rhyme or reason of what the voters did with the three-year-old pacers. Heston Blue Chip won the division with 46% of the vote to 34% for Michaels Power. The latter, who won the O’Brien for his division with 75% of the vote and was voted Horse of the Year in Canada, actually had a better year. He had two major wins in the open realm—the Jug and Confederation Cup—as well as a split of the SBSW. On the restricted side he took the 600K Upper Canada, the OSS Super Gold Final, three OSS Gold legs and the Canadian Breeders Championship. Heston, who didn’t qualify for the O’Brien because his two Breeders Crown starts were his only races in Canada, had one major win—the BC—as well as the Progress, Matron, Historic Cup, and on the restricted side, the EBC and four NYSS races. He failed to win the Pace, Adios, Hempt, Tattersalls Pace, Bluegrass or NYSS Night of Champions Pace. (He didn’t start in all of those races.) Since each of them experienced most of their success in their home country it’s no surprise that they split the divisional awards.
In the three-year-old division Heston outpolled Michaels Power by 18 votes or 12% of the total, while in the Pacer of the Year category Heston only received 9 votes or 6% of the total, situating him neck and neck with Golden Receiver, while Michaels Power finished second to the winner, Captaintreacherous, with 24 votes or 16% of the total. That is bizarre. Heston is a more worthy divisional champ while Michaels Power is a more viable POY candidate? It doesn’t make any sense.
The quest to come up with the top trotter met with equally odd results. Only 131 votes were cast for HOY and Chapter Seven won by a comfortable 43 vote margin over stablemate Market Share. And Chapter Seven beat the latter by 39 votes in the Trotter of the Year race. Murray Brown, who had no dog in that fight, chastised the 50 voters who privileged Market Share over Chapter Seven in the TOY voting. This reprimand would obviously extend to the 41 who voted for Market Share in the HOY contest. As bizarre as the voting was involving HBC and Michaels Power, this is the contest that screams for some relief in the form of a new system that takes the voting out of the hands of the USHWA. Is this a situation similar to the Triple Crown, where Yonkers Raceway owns the concept? Perhaps. Regardless, something needs to be done.
Market Share made twice as many starts as Chapter Seven did last year and he earned double the money. A cursory glance at these figures might prompt someone who isn’t really paying attention to cast a vote for the Revenue colt, but it’s hard to see why anyone genuinely engaged with the sport would reach that conclusion. Market Share won the two high dollar races in the division, the Hambletonion and the CTC, but what else did he accomplish? During the course of the season he lost to Not Afraid, Big Chocolate, Little Brown Fox (twice), Beer Summit, Riccolo, Googoo Gaagaa and Intimidate. His other stakes wins were the Zweig, which featured a weak field, and the Galt, which was a 1/9 walkover at the end of the season.
Chapter Seven had two fewer wins in half as many starts as Market Share. There are no million dollar races like the CTC (was) or 1.5 million races like the Hambletonion for aged trotters. The Maple Leaf (750) and the BC (591) were the only lucrative opportunities available to the Windsongs Legacy stallion. The little guy parked outside of Commander Crowe and trotted that behemoth into submission in the BC, while Market Share looked hopelessly overmatched against Intimidate that night. Chapter Seven set a world record in the Titan Cup Prep and came back to break it in the Nat Ray with a 1:50.1 mile. He also won the Maxie Lee, missing the world record on a 5/8 by a tick, and won the Allerage, the Titan Cup Final and the American-National. Unlike Market Share, who was considered to be inferior to Intimidate by many after the BC, Chapter Seven dominated his division. Murray Brown was right to call out the 50 voters who thought the sophomore was a more worthy choice for TOY. How did 34% of the voters reach this ridiculous conclusion? Add that to the fact that 20% didn’t even bother to vote at all.
Local media coverage of harness racing was the norm fifty years ago but it’s dropped off to zero. The number of folks actually covering the sport on a regular basis, online and in the few publications still standing, is relatively small. Isn’t it time to find a new way to choose our champions? Considering the composition of the electorate it wouldn’t shock anyone to see Foiled Again emerge as the POY. Nothing these people come up with should surprise anyone.