Ghostzapper's win in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic last Saturday was one of the most dominant performances in the 21-year history of the race. The blazing bay 4-year-old toyed with a solid field and won by three lengths in a stakes record time at Lone Star Park outside Dallas. Soon, however, Ghostzapper will face a less tangible foe: the memory of Smarty Jones.
One of them will be voted Horse of the Year. "It's a two-horse race," said trainer Todd Pletcher, who won two races on Breeders' Cup day. "You've got the horses who won the toughest races in the world, the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders' Cup Classic. And you've got to choose between them."
The paths of Smarty Jones and Ghostzapper never crossed. Smarty raced fellow 3-year-olds in the winter and early spring, won the Kentucky Derby and crushed the field in the Preakness. He was finally knocked off in a brutal Belmont, beating back challenges from three horses before losing to Birdstone in the long stretch.
Ghostzapper was slowed early this year by a cracked hoof and did not race until July 4 at Belmont Park. But he went unbeaten in four races, showing the kind of speed that reduces handicappers to mumbling (including a 128 Beyer speed figure at the Aug. 21 Iselin at Monmouth Park, the highest figure of the year).
In other words Smarty Jones owned the first half of the year, Ghostzapper the second. Horse of the Year is a coin toss, and it will be decided on intangibles. "The way I look at it," says Pletcher, "the Derby is an even harder race to win than the Breeders' Cup Classic, so you go with that. But for some people, recency is going to be a factor."
"Ghostzapper might be as good as any horse we've seen in a long time," says Dale Romans, who trains Roses in May, the Classic runner-up. Ghostzapper will get support for the breathtaking power of his races and for winning the last race of the season.
Smarty Jones, on the other hand, will benefit from having thrust horse racing onto center stage during the Triple Crown season, generating massive television ratings and uncommon buzz. But he will be hurt by his owners' disappointing decision to retire him in August for a syndication fee of $39 million.
In the end, though, Smarty Jones turned in more significant performances than Ghostzapper, at a time when the world was watching. For that, Smarty Jones deserves to be named Horse of the Year. By a nose.