In readers' minds, Artax finishes first

ON HORSE RACING

Horse Racing

January 16, 2000|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Struggling to make sense of a confounding year in racing, readers of The Sun split six ways in their votes for 1999 Horse of the Year. But when the responses of 25 racing fans were finally sorted out, Artax emerged as the readers' choice for thoroughbred racing's most prestigious award.

Ten of the 25 respondents to my request for input as to who should be Horse of the Year selected Artax, the speedy sprinter who overcame near-tragedy at Pimlico on Preakness day. Charismatic, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, received five votes. Daylami, the European turf specialist, and Silverbulletday, the brilliant 3-year-old filly, garnered three votes apiece.

As you may remember from my Jan. 2 column, I did not vote for Horse of the Year because I did not believe any were worthy. Other turf writers, employees of the Daily Racing Form and representatives of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association did vote, and their three finalists were Artax, Charismatic and Daylami.

The winner will be announced tomorrow at the Eclipse awards dinner at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, Calif. Winners of the other 10 equine and five human categories will also be announced.

Robert Lee, a 47-year-old railroad clerk from Pasadena, took me to task for my not voting for Horse of the Year.

"I wholeheartedly agree that it is a tough decision," Lee wrote. "But as your civics teacher probably taught you, the worst choice is d) none of the above."

Lee voted for Artax "simply by process of elimination [I voted for Dukakis in '88]."

While readers acknowledged the difficulty of choosing Horse of the Year in a year of no obvious standout, they also paid Artax the ultimate compliment for three spectacular performances. The 4-year-old son of Marquetry won only four of 15 races (he finished in the top three 10 times), but when he was good, none were better.

In the Carter Handicap in May at Aqueduct, Artax broke the 30-year-old 7-furlong record of Dr. Fager. In the Forest Hills Handicap in October at Belmont Park, he broke the 12-year-old 6-furlong record of Groovy. And in the Breeders' Cup Sprint in November at Gulfstream Park, Artax tied the 26-year-old 6-furlong record of Mr. Prospector.

"I saw all the races, and he blew everybody away," said Mike Boyle, 47, the customer-service manager of a steamship company who lives in Bel Air. "He showed his class by knocking the socks off the competition.

"Even though a classic racehorse goes a mile and an eighth or mile and a quarter or even farther, they've shortened the distances so much that I think in this day and age you can equate a sprinter with a distance horse as far as class and quality are concerned."

Bill Grau, a 40-year-old real-estate developer from Glenwood, chose Artax for his records and another reason, as well.

"The horse and his trainer [Lou Albertrani] also overcame one Lee Ferrell to become a Breeders' Cup champion," Grau wrote. "That was no small task."

On Preakness day at Pimlico, Lee Chang Ferrell, a 22-year-old resident of Bel Air, walked onto the track from the infield and impeded the horses in the Maryland Breeders' Cup Handicap. Artax, the favorite, swerved at the last minute to miss Ferrell. Artax wrenched an ankle and missed a week of training.

Although J. R. Ackerman, a 20-year-old racing fan from Pasadena, voted for Artax as Horse of the Year, he offered a brief but eloquent argument for Charismatic as champion 3-year-old male.

"Who can't be touched by him and Antley at Belmont?" Ackerman wrote. "That is why horse racing is the best sport around."

After winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Charismatic broke a leg seeking the Triple Crown in the Belmont. His jockey, Chris Antley, jumped off and cradled the leg, preventing further damage and perhaps saving Charismatic's life.

Charismatic's Triple Crown campaign persuaded Jerry Carton, a 46-year-old educator from Pikesville, to cast his vote for the 3-year-old as Horse of the Year.

"Hopefully, this season will showcase a superstar that will help bring racing farther above blip-status on the sports radar screen," Carton wrote. "In the interim, my vote would go to Charismatic. At the very least, he delivered a dramatic, thrilling, and yes, charismatic, Triple Crown series."

The three backers of Daylami for Horse of the Year raved about his overpowering performance in the Breeders' Cup Turf. And the trio who supported Silverbulletday, even though she was not a finalist, praised her consistency. She ran in 11 graded stakes (seven of them Grade I) and won eight. In her only race against males, the Belmont, she faded to seventh after contesting a wicked pace with Charismatic.

"She didn't embarrass herself in the Belmont," said Tom Zapf, 39, a horse owner from Abingdon. "She dominated her division [3-year-old fillies] like no other."

Zapf witnessed Silverbulletday's impressive two-length victory in the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes at Pimlico.

"I was one of the people standing up and applauding," Zapf said. "She looked like a champion to me."

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