Hangin’ With Haskin: Vox Populi Award Gaining its Niche in History

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California Chrome won the Vox Populi Award last year and also in 2014. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Why has the name Seabiscuit endured for so many years, and why did his story become a best selling book and popular motion picture? When people discuss the greatest horses of all time, you rarely hear Seabiscuit's name mentioned. Other than his victory over War Admiral in a match race and perhaps the Santa Anita Handicap, how many of his stakes victories can you name?

The reason Seabiscuit has become one of the most beloved horses of all time is far more about his popularity and his fascinating rags to riches story in the times in which he lived than his racing record.

If there was a Vox Populi Award in 1938, Seabiscuit most likely would have won a larger percentage of votes for that award than for Horse of Year, considering he won only six of his 11 starts that year, including another match race against a horse named Ligaroti.

It was Secretariat's owner Penny Chenery who created the Vox Populi Award in 2010 to recognize the racehorse whose "popularity and racing excellence best resounded with the public and gained recognition for the sport." But remember, vox populi translates to "voice of the people," so the award, while recognizing race record, is mainly about popularity and the ability to touch people.

With this year's poll closing Dec. 12, the candidates are Gun Runner, Ben's CatPatch, Songbird, Lady Eli, and Arrogate.

From a performance and talent standpoint, Gun Runner, Arrogate, and Songbird would stand far above Ben's Cat, Patch, and Lady Eli if this were for Horse of the Year. But many believe Ben's Cat, Lady Eli, and Patch have a much better chance of winning the Vox Populi Award. Ben's Cat was one of the most beloved horses in the history of Maryland and Pennsylvania racing, who died less than a month after his well-deserved retirement at age 11, having won numerous stakes multiple times, including the Mister Diz Stakes six times and the Jim McKay Turf Sprint five times.

And there is Lady Eli, who not only survived the dreaded killer laminitis, she returned to the races to win Grade 1 stakes on both coasts in 2017 after getting beat a nose in last year's Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf. She parted the racing scene after this year's Filly and Mare Turf, in which she tore open her leg during the race, but still tried to the end. And finally there is the aptly named Patch, who became one of the most popular horses in the country during the Triple Crown trail, competing and performing well despite having only one eye.

And we can say the same about the first Vox Populi winner, Zenyatta, and how she inspired people during times of illness and misfortune, helping so many simply by them being in her presence. Yes, she won 19 consecutive races, but her popularity went so much deeper than that, right down to her much-anticipated "dance" step before races. Her legacy not only will be about her winning streak, but the number of people she brought to tears and how so many waited for hours for her in the freezing cold at Keeneland just for a brief glimpse and to touch her.

No one is going to mention 2013 Vox Populi winner Mucho Macho Man, winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic, with the greats of all time, but as his story continues to be told it will be about how he was believed to have been born dead, only to jump to his feet in front of those mourning him and then dash across the field. And it will be about his trainer Kathy Ritvo's courageous battle with a debilitating heart condition that left her near death until she received a heart transplant. Together they were reborn, destined to march into history.

Has there been a horse in recent years who touched more people than 2012 Vox Populi winner Paynter? He not only miraculously survived near-death battles with colitis, laminitis, and surgery to remove an abscess from the cecum, he actually made it back to the races, he winning one race, placing in Grade 1 and Grade 2 stakes, and making it to the Breeders' Cup Classic. His owner, Ahmed Zayat, who also owned American Pharoah, said of Paynter, "I just do not know how he survived. I can't explain it. I keep living this whole ordeal it in my dreams. I've become so emotionally attached; it's crazy. It's like I'm obsessed. I keep asking, ‘How did he survive all these things?"

It wasn't only 2011 Vox Populi winner Rapid Redux's 22-race winning streak that won him the award and made him a legend in the mid-Atlantic, it was being claimed for a meager $6,250 and giving fans at smaller tracks like Charles Town, Mountaineer Park, Penn National, Timonium, Parx Racing, Thistledown, as well as Laurel Park a hero to worship.

This is what the Vox Populi Award is all about, and why it is growing in popularity each year. It strips away records, final times, and other statistics and cuts deep into the core of what Thoroughbred racing is all about – dreams and what all those racing tearjerker films from the 1930s to 1950s represented. We no longer need to reach back to horses like Seabiscuit or older classic films such as Kentucky and National Velvet to stir our emotions. We can live them. And it is reassuring to know that those kinds of sentimental stories that touch us so deeply will continue to be revisited every year and preserved for all time by the Vox Populi Award.

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