The social media world exploded after the "Vox Populi" Award finalists were released. Though the five finalists chosen are all stellar athletes, at least three of the five did not speak to the people in the same way as those that were not on the final ballot. Most agree that while Frankel and I'll Have Another certainly deserve to be on the ballot, Royal Delta, Wise Dan, and Shanghai Bobby could be replaced with more fitting candidates. I happen to belong to that group of people. Rather than keeping my opinion to myself, I took advantage of the "Contact Us" feature on secretariat.com in order to let the powers that be know that I, along with many others, did not agree with this year's finalists. Here is what I had to say:
To Whom It May Concern:
“Horse racing already has established avenues to award outstanding accomplishments, and we certainly should honor superior performance. But achievement can be measured in many ways, and fans occasionally feel a disconnect when the horses who most impacted the public are not recognized through the traditional equine awards. The industry is long overdue in annually acknowledging the star horse who brings the most excitement and attention to the sport. It is my hope that the Secretariat “Vox Populi” Award will be an honor that reflects the heart and soul of racing and will help build upon the devotion the public has for a horse they love.”
With Ms. Chenery's intent for the "Vox Populi" in mind, I am of the opinion that the 2012 nominees for the award fall short of the most important criteria for the award: being the horse that brought the most excitement and attention to the sport. I mean no disrespect toward Royal Delta, Wise Dan, or Shanghai Bobby. They certainly are stars in their own right; however, I do not believe that they, more than any other Grade 1 winner, brought attention or excitement to the sport. Frankel and I'll Have Another certainly fit the bill due to their respective accomplishments, retiring undefeated and making a run at Triple Crown history respectively. However, I would argue that Paynter, Shackleford, and Animal Kingdom would have been better selections than Royal Delta, Wise Dan, or Shanghai Bobby.
The Saga of Paynter was not played out in private. In today's world of social media, news is instantaneous. Once the news of Paynter's illness was released, prayers, well wishes, and concern poured out via Twitter and Facebook. Understanding how much people wanted to be kept informed about Paynter's battle to survive, the Zayats, Paynter's owners, graciously kept the public informed daily about Paynter's condition and progress. Each day brought a new wave of emotion as Paynter would make progress only to be faced with another seemingly insurmountable challenge. Paynter's and his connections' good days were our good days, and their bad days were our bad days, as well. Paynter's battle brought together the horse racing industry and many who were unfamiliar with our sport, and was an inspiration to us all. He faced impossible odds and yet pulled through, proving to the world that nothing is truly impossible.
Shackleford has been one of the most popular horses in America since his 2011 Preakness win. His front-running, hard knocking, never going to give up style of racing would be difficult not to admire. Along with his tenacity, Shackleford also brings with him a regal presence. He is special, and he knows it. Because of these things, he has attracted thousands of fans and even has his own fan club, the Shackettes. In an era where most Grade 1 caliber horses do not race more than five or six times a year, Shackleford went to the starting gate ten times in 2011 and eight times in 2012. Because his connections did not retire him, fans were able to develop a connection with him due to the longevity of his career that many other horses of his caliber do not have.
Animal Kingdom is also proof positive that any odds can be beaten. He has twice returned to the track after suffering a significant injury, but it is his second return that took him to the next level. With no prep race, the 2011 Kentucky Derby winner ran the race of his lifetime, falling just a length and a half short of winning the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Mile after encountering traffic problems. With a clean trip, he very well may have snatched that victory away from Wise Dan. After the race, the crowd at Santa Anita gave him a standing ovation for his effort. Who other than the mighty Zenyatta can claim such accolades in defeat?
These three courageous colts have brought much more excitement and attention to the sport than the three I would have chosen to replace. These are the horses that truly speak to the people. They have inspired fans, and their achievements have come both on and off the track. If the "Vox Populi" is to truly be about more than a horse's achievements on the track, then the committee should look for horses like these. While Royal Delta, Wise Dan, and Shanghai Bobby no doubt have their own fans, it is my opinion that they have not brought the same attention to our sport that Shackleford, Animal Kingdom, and Paynter have.
It is my hope that in the future, those responsible for choosing the finalists for this award will be more in tune with fans. Pay attention to social media for it is there that committee members will find which horses truly speak to the people. It is only fitting that the "Voice of the People" Award truly represent the voice of the people.