close call for 2023 horse of the year

By Dick Jerardi

Horse of the Year typically is not very complicated. Consider the last 10 winners: Flightline, Knicks Go, Authentic, Bricks and Mortar, Justify, Gun Runner, California Chrome, American Pharoah, California Chrome again and Wise Dan.

This year is not at all like that. There was no dominant male horse that finished off the year by winning or running really well in a Breeders’ Cup race.

When I printed out the past performances for all the contenders in the various Eclipse Award categories and began to consider my votes, I decided to look at everything with the biggest picture (Horse of the Year) in mind.

There was just one 3-year-old with any credentials – Arcangelo, with wins in the Peter Pan, Belmont Stakes and Travers. If Arcangelo had won the BC Classic, it would have been a no-brainer as Horse of the Year. But he had an issue the week of the race, did not run and was retired. A no-doubt-about-it 3-year-old, champion, but not enough for Horse of the Year.

Now, sprinters typically are not in the Horse of the Year discussion, but, in a year with no dominant older male horse or 3-year-old that beat older in a major race, Elite Power deserves consideration. Raced five times. Won four, with a second. Won the Riyadh Dirt Sprint in February, the True North in June, the Vanderbilt in July and, for the second straight year, the BC Sprint in November. His only loss was an uncomfortable trip second in the Forego. A really good year, but not quite good enough for me.

Up to the Mark was, by far, the best North American grass horse with wins in the Turf Classic, the Manhattan and Coolmore Turf Mile. If he had won the BC Turf instead of finishing a close second to Auguste Rodin, I could make a strong case for him to be rewarded like Bricks and Mortar in 2019. But he did not win so he’s out.

White Abarrio was clearly the country’s best horse by year’s end, but his dominant wins in the Whitney and BC Classic just are not enough of a resume for me.

So it comes down to Cody’s Wish or Idiomatic. If it’s just about the story, it is Cody’s Wish. But it’s not just about the story, it is also about the accomplishments.

Cody’s Wish raced five times, with four wins, all in Grade I races, culminating with a second consecutive BC Dirt Mile win, this time over the Preakness winner National Treasure in an incredible finish. Cody’s Wish won the Metropolitan Mile in dominating fashion over a strong field that included White Abarrio. His only loss came in the Whitney, his only two-turn race. If he wins that race, Cody would have been a cinch Horse of the Year. That race was an experiment by trainer Bill Mott. It did not work, but it takes nothing away from the talent, consistency and durability of Cody’s Wish.

Idiomatic raced in January, February, March, May, June, July, August, October and November. She ran nine times, with eighth wins and a second. She won six stakes – three Grade I, a Grade II, a Grade III and one listed. She ran at Turfway Park, Belmont Park, Churchill Downs. Delaware Park, Saratoga, Keenaldn and Santa Anita.

The 4-year-old filly culminated a throwback campaign with a gallant win in the BC Distaff after prompting a hot pace and holding off the closers. A lesser horse loses that race.

Idiomatic only raced against fillies, but that’s really not an issue for me. She was very good in January and kept getting better in the spring, summer and fall.

Would Idiomatic beat Cody’s Wish in a one-turn race? Probably not. Would she beat Elite Power in a Sprint? Definitely not. Would she beat White Abarrio or Arcangelo in an open Grade I? No.

But all of that is beside the point. Horse of the Year to me is about resume and accomplishment. Idiomatic had a near perfect season with a sensational resume. And that campaign – racing in every month but April, September and December while holding that form from beginning to end – is something to be celebrated in an era where hardly anybody races their top horses much at all. For that, Idiomatic will get my vote as 2023 Horse of the Year.

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