Before 1936, there were no formal championship titles in American racing. Horses that racked up the greatest earnings and the most stakes wins in their divisions were called champions. The horse acclaimed the best of the year was often the one with the highest earnings of all, a convention that neatly meshed with accomplishments on track. In most years, the biggest money earner was also the horse who most thrilled crowds with its wins, as the great racemare Imp did in 1899, when she became the first distaffer to win the Suburban Handicap and broke the track record for the Brighton Handicap by two seconds, or “champion-of-champions” Man o’War did in 1920, setting records in multiple stakes and defeating Triple Crown winner Sir Barton in the Kenilworth Gold Cup.
But the best horse of the year wasn’t always so obvious to observers. In 1936, Turf and Sport Digest announced the first ever championship poll, so that “the King of the Turf, one which can lay undisputed claim to his crown” could be chosen. The best horses in four divisions — 2-year-old males, 2-year-old females, all 3-year-olds, “and the best of any age” — would be decided by a voters’ list of more than 400 turf and sport writers from major newspapers across the country, reported the Thoroughbred Record on September 12, 1936. “Usually there is a widely divergent opinion as to the best horse of the year, a condition that makes for intense confusion,” commented the Record writer.
The divergent opinion would continue: The Daily Racing Form began an annual championship vote the same year, and in 1950, “perhaps as a response to the 1949 Horse of the Year situation,” the Thoroughbred Racing Association added its opinion to the end-of-year debate. For the next 20 years, the DRF and TRA, and at times, the National Turf Writers Association, which also undertook to poll its members for champions, competed in awarding titles, each believing its vote was the most credible. While the groups would often name the same horses champions, there were years in which the results turned out starkly different.
It was one such year that led to the founding of the Eclipse Awards. The late J.B. Faulconer, then the public relations director at Keeneland, was irked that two horses were named Horse of the Year in 1970, the Daily Racing Form having voted for Fort Marcy, a winner of five stakes on turf, and the TRA for Personality, winner of the Preakness and Woodward.
Ready with a perfect name — the awards honor the great 18th century runner and sire, Eclipse — and reason, the well-liked Faulconer succeeded in his campaign for a combined poll, bringing the DRF, TRA, and NTWA together in time to launch the Eclipse Awards in 1971. (Turf and Sport Digest continued to run its poll separately for several years.) Ten divisions were voted on, 10 champions named. Ack Ack earned the first Horse of the Year awarded by the consolidated voters, winning off a record of seven victories in eight starts, including the Santa Anita Handicap and the Hollywood Gold Cup. He was unanimously selected by the three voting blocs. Such agreement hasn’t always been easy — in 1972, the groups split over two juveniles as Horse of the Year, with the TRA and DRF selecting Secretariat and the NTWA La Prevoyante, and in 2009, several voters agitated for giving Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra shared honors — but Faulconer’s vision has remained intact. Since 1971, there’s been one official poll, one champion for each division, and only one horse of the year.