Meet the 2021 Vox Populi Award Finalists

The ballot box is open for the 2021 Secretariat “Vox Populi” Award, but before you cast your vote be sure to read the story behind each of the six finalists. ~ Steve Haskin

Meet the 2021 Vox Populi Award Finalists

By Steve Haskin


It is that time of the year again to start thinking about championships even though the Eclipse Awards are out of the public’s hands. It is just the opposite when it comes to the Secretariat Vox Populi Award, which goes to the most popular horse as voted by the public. The award was the brainchild of Big Red’s owner Penny Chenery, who inaugurated it in January 2011, with the honor going to the great mare Zenyatta.

It was Zenyatta’s owner Jerry Moss who summed up the award best when it was presented to him by Mrs. Chenery at Santa Anita.

“We’re thrilled to receive this fantastic award,” Moss said. “Having grown up in the business, to have our horse mentioned in the same breath as Secretariat is an honor indeed. Thank you to the fans and to Penny Chenery for this beautiful award and to Secretariat for setting the mode.”

Now, more than a decade later, the award has gone to a vast cross section of equine stars, from Horses of the Year and Eclipse champions to lesser known, but equally as popular, horses such as Rapid Redux and Ben’s Cat, whose careers were light years from an Eclipse Award, but whose achievements endeared themselves to racing fans all over the country. To show how diverse the Vox Populi Award has become, it even went to the Australian wonder mare Winx, who had racing fans in America staying up all hours of the night to watch her race after race extend her amazing winning streak to 33 races.

Mrs. Chenery came up with idea for the Vox Populi Award to “recognize a horse whose popularity and racing excellence best resounded with the American public and gained recognition for the sport during the past year.”

This year the Vox Populi nominating committee came up with six such horses as finalists that will now go to the public, which has the option to submit write-in votes if they feel there are others who deserve the honor.

Following are the six finalists in alphabetical order, all of whom competed in this year’s Breeders’ Cup. But even though half of them were defeated it did not diminish their popularity.

How popular can a 2-year-old filly be who raced only four times from mid-July to early November? As odd as it may sound, it’s not her unblemished record that makes her popular, it is the promise of the future. And it is that promise that has enabled Echo Zulu to capture the imagination of the public.

Ever since 1975, whenever a brilliant 2-year-old filly has come along who is undefeated and totally dominates her opponents, while dazzling racing fans with her freakish victories, the thought begins to enter people’s minds: “Could this be the next Ruffian?” Younger fans can only go by stories and videos, but hardened veterans who witnessed the magnificence of Ruffian in person still hope to see another one come along after almost half a century, knowing full well the chances of it happening are close to zero.

When Echo Zulo won her career debut by 5 ½ lengths at Saratoga at odds of 4-1, outshining all the colts and doing it with little urging, it opened people’s eyes, but there were no thoughts at all of Ruffian, who ironically also went off at 4-1 in her career debut. Then came the leap into grade 1 company and an easy four-length score in the Spinaway Stakes, a race also won by Ruffian. Although Ruffian was forced to miss the Frizette Stake with a season-ending injury, Echo Zulu demolished her opponents by 7 ¼ lengths in a swift 1:35 flat for the mile.

Now everyone’s eyes were open much wider. Facing her strongest opposition by far in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, the story was the same, as she ran her opponents into the ground, winning by 5 ¼ lengths and running faster than the undefeated Corniche in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile.

No one at this stage is comparing Echo Zulu’s accomplishments with Ruffian and her 10 stakes-record victories. But her first few brush strokes suggest a possible masterpiece in the making. There is a long way to go until its completion, but for now, she appears to be in a totally different class than her opponents, whether it’s at 5 ½ furlongs, seven furlongs, one mile, or 1 1/16 miles. So we can’t help but dream, and it is that dream that makes Echo Zulu worthy of a place on the list of Vox Populi finalists.

Essential Quality will not be remembered as a brilliant horse who turned in even one jaw-dropping performance. Owned and bred by the powerful Godolphin operation that has sent out waves of international Group and Grade 1 winners this year, Essential Quality certainly is never going to be mistaken for Cinderella and he surely was not bred with fairy tales in mind. Yet the handsome gray colt became one of the most popular horses in the country. The reason why can be answered in one word – respect. And respect often breeds popularity.

This was a horse who liked to do three things – eat, sleep, and run. At the barn in the morning you would likely find him sprawled out in his stall fast asleep after his breakfast. That was a scene a good portion of the racing world got to witness through his groom’s videos on Twitter. But on the racetrack in the afternoon Essential Quality was a running machine with a burning competitive spirit. After a while, it seemed that all trainer Brad Cox had to do was wind him up and wait for some horse to look him in the eye.

Essential Quality was the quintessential pro. Fast track or slop he still won. Six furlongs or 1 ½ miles he still won. Fast pace or slow pace he still won. He could be placed anywhere on the racetrack. At the half-mile pole of his races, he was second, third, fourth, fifth, and eighth and won them all. He won four major stakes by under a length and two major stakes by 3 ¼ and 4 ¼ lengths. He became the first horse ever to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Belmont Stakes and ran the second-fastest Belmont in the last 20 years, with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah running only two-fifths of a second faster.

The only two defeats of his career came in the Kentucky Derby when he was very wide the entire trip, losing a good deal of ground on both turns, and in the Breeders’ Cup Classic when his stablemate Knicks Go came in on him at the break forcing him to drop back to sixth and get stuck on the rail behind horses.

With all his accomplishments, Essential Quality wasn’t even the best horse in his own barn, although we didn’t find that out until his career finale in the Classic. In the world of the Vox Populi Award that means little or nothing or that he was beaten by Knicks Go, who deprived him of Horse of the Year honors. It is the entire journey that counts and how many fans hop aboard the bandwagon and bet him down as favorite in his races, as they did in the Classic.

Essential Quality’s fans followed him, rooted for him, admired him, and wagered on him, not because he was so dynamic, winning by huge margins in record times. It was because he earned something that doesn’t show up on the highlight reels – he earned their respect.

Many of the qualities we saw in Essential Quality we also saw in Hot Rod Charlie, except that the latter was considered more of a common folks version of the Godolphin colt. And racing fans took an immediate liking to him, as they did to his co-owners, five college buddies and football teammates from Brown University, who formed a strong brotherhood after graduating that eventually led them to owning part of Hot Rod Charlie under the name Boat Racing after a beer game from their college days. Their main connection to racing was the group’s spokesperson, Patrick O’Neill, who happens to be the nephew of Hot Rod Charlie’s trainer Doug O’Neill and Doug’s brother Dennis, who bought the colt at the Fasig-Tipton October yearling sale for $110,000. So Charlie was truly a family affair.

But the son of Oxbow earned his popularity mainly because of his consistency, resiliency, and toughness and traveling all over the country to take on the best. But also because many regarded him as a hard-luck horse who always tried hard, but often came up just short, with almost every race being a mini-drama. And because of that, they were always pulling for him to land one of the big races.

In last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he emerged virtually from nowhere, coming off a neck maiden victory, and was just beaten three-quarters of a length by Essential Quality at odds of 94-1. That would be his first of eight-consecutive races at eight different racetracks in seven different stakes.

In his 3-year-old debut, the Robert Lewis Stakes, he got bounced around like a three-cushion billiard shot in the stretch and finished third, beat a neck, by Medina Spirit. He then wired his field in the Louisiana Derby, run for the first time at the extended distance of 1 3/16 miles. In the Kentucky Derby, he had to check in tight quarters passing the finish line, right behind Medina Spirit, dropping back to fifth. He fought hard in the stretch, but fell a length short of catching Medina Spirit and Mandaloun, although he did out-battle Essential Quality for third.

He then ran one of the greatest losing races in the history of the Belmont Stakes, battling on the lead through a torrid half in :46 2/5, which was only a fifth of a second slower than Secretariat ran in his record Belmont victory. Again, he wouldn’t quit in the stretch, but just couldn’t hold off Essential Quality, who beat him by 1 1/4 lengths, with an 11 ¼-length gap to the third horse, Preakness winner Rombauer.

He appeared to have landed his elusive Grade 1 victory by out-battling Mandaloun by a nose in the Haskell Invitational only to be disqualified and placed seventh. Everything finally went right for him in the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby and he had no trouble winning wire-to-wire by 2 ¼ lengths, earning a career-high 111 Beyer speed figure, but once again had to survive a foul claim.

In the Breeders’ Cup Classic, having run hard all over the country since January and never finishing out of the money, Hot Rod Charlie gave his all chasing Knicks Go, but could finish no better than fourth.

As it stands now, he could face fellow Vox Populi finalists Knicks Go and Life is Good in the rich Pegasus World Cup in January. One thing is for sure, he will have his legion of fans backing him, and five exuberant college buddies who found the horse of a lifetime.

Is Knicks Go about to make Vox Populi history? If he wins the award it would be the first father and son duo to do so. His sire Paynter received the honor in 2012 after battling back from three life-threatening illnesses — pneumonia, colitis, and laminitis. He actually made it back to races where he finished second in the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes named after his sire, who, like Knicks Go, won the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Although Knicks Go did not have to go through such an ordeal, he did have a resurrection of his own, returning from an injury at 3 to earn a likely Horse of the Year title two years later. No horse in memory has had as unusual a career as Knicks Go.

Trained originally by Ben Colebrook, he scored a shocking victory in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity, romping by 5 ½ lengths at odds of 70-1. Despite his impressive score he still went off at 40-1 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and finished second to the Bob Baffert-trained Game Winner. His career then went into a sudden and dramatic nosedive. Not only did he lose his next nine starts, he was out of the money in seven of them, finishing as far back as 10th and 11th, and in the Gotham Stakes was beaten 51 lengths. The promise he had shown at 2 for some reason had taken a 180-degree turn and his career was now in a free fall and appeared to be plummeting into the abyss.

He was turned over to trainer Brad Cox following a 10th-place finish in a Grade 3 grass race at Churchill Downs. His physical ailment was corrected and he emerged a new horse with a new life and never looked back, going from strength to strength. His ability to accelerate on the turns and his incredible quickness to go along with his powerful strides made him a terror in two-turn races. In his eight starts going two turns he won all eight by an average margin of 5 ¾ lengths. By winning the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at 4 and Breeders’ Cup Classic at 5, he became the first horse to win two different Breeders’ Cup races and finish second in another. His time of 1:59 2/5 was the third fastest Classic ever run on dirt behind Skip Away and Ghostzapper.

In the Classic he instilled something in the opposition few horses are able to  – fear. To pretty much sacrifice your chances of winning because of the fear you have to look him in the eye or even attempt to stay close to him says a lot. He basically had the best horses in America running for second.

But Knicks Go was more than just a brilliant horse who appears a lock for Horse off the Year honors. Fans all over America and as far away as Saudi Arabia got a chance to see him run, as he scored victories at Oaklawn Park and Gulfstream in the south, Keeneland, Churchill Downs, and Prairie Meadows in the Midwest, Saratoga in the northeast, and Del Mar in the west, not to mention his trip to Saudi Arabia that likely took its toll physically and contributed to his defeat in the arduous Met Mile in hIs first start back. Both those races were around one turn and his strength is putting his opponents away on the first turn and then accelerating again on the second turn before drawing off in the stretch.

To demonstrate how popular he became during his travels, his appearance in the Cornhusker Stakes practically made the season for a small track like Prairie Meadows.

“We were excited to see his name in the nominations,” said director of racing Derron Heldt. “When Brad Cox confirmed he was running I told everyone let’s hold this race together and make sure it goes. To watch him win off by over 10 lengths with that high cruising speed was so exciting. It was such a great feeling to have a horse of that caliber run here and then go on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The morning after the Cornhusker several of my staff members went to the barn to have their picture taken with him. I’m sure our marketing department will put him on the cover of our first condition book.”

Not bad for a horse who two years earlier was rapidly fading into obscurity.

It took a little while for racing fans to embrace Letruska, but when they did it started a love affair that lasted all of 2021. They were intrigued by her when she came to the United States from Mexico in 2019 unbeaten in six races and coming off two grade victories by 9 ½ and 14 lengths. She ran some good races here in late 2019 and 2020, winning the Grade 3 Shuvee Stakes and a pair of overnight stakes but she also threw in clunkers in the Tropical Park Oaks and the Ballerina and Beldame Stakes.

She did open some eyes this year with impressive stakes scores at Gulfstream Park and Sam Houston before getting beat a head by the top-class filly Shedaresthedevil in the Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn. But it wasn’t until she surprisingly out-dueled the gutsy two-time Eclipse champion Monomoy Girl in the Apple Blossom Stakes that fans really began to take notice of her.

Even Oaklawn race caller Vic Stauffer was stunned by the outcome, as he bellowed, “Letruska has turned away the champion…oh my goodness!”

That victory propelled her to a five-race winning streak at five different tracks, four of her victories coming in Grade 1 stakes. After arriving at Del Mar for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff where another victory could have earned her the title of Horse of the Year, depending on what happened in the Classic, Letruska became the most visible horse on the grounds, with photographers and TV cameramen constantly around her and the media doing countless interviews with her trainer Fausto Gutierrez.

Gutierrez had been successful in Mexico and thought it was time to bring his small stable to the United States and give Letruska a chance at stardom. He felt his mare was carrying the flag of Mexico and was hoping she could show that a horse from his country could beat the best fillies and mares in the world. The fairy tale ending was set, despite one of the strongest and deepest Distaff fields ever.

But the race went downhill from the start when Bob Baffert’s fast 3-year-old filly Private Mission took it to Letrustka immediately with jockey Flavien Prat intent on outrunning her. The result was suicidal fractions of :44 4/5 and 1:09 3/5, which killed off both horses. To demonstrate the toll they took, Letruska, who had been racing steadily all over the country since April of 2020, was beaten 32 lengths, with Private Mission another five lengths behind her bringing up the rear. The first five finishers came from ninth, seventh, eighth, 11th, and 10th, respectively, thanks to the blistering pace.

The Distaff will soon become a forgotten blot on Letruska’s record as she and Gutierrez, who said the Distaff was “a very, very tough race on her,” prepare to regroup for another sensational campaign in 2022.

You can tell how people feel about Letruska when she can get beat 32 lengths in the biggest race of the year and no one has a disparaging word to say. Now that is what you call popular.

There was a time when Life is Good and his trainer Bob Baffert were indeed living the good life. Following a learning experience winning the Sham Stakes over Medina Spirit, in which he was pulling himself up in the final furlong, he went into full Kentucky Derby mode by crushing Medina Spirit by eight lengths in the San Felipe Stakes, despite drifting out badly in the stretch. That proved to be a foreboding sign as he came out of a March 20 workout with an ankle chip that required surgery and kept him out of the Triple Crown races. Without the setback he was on his way to becoming the Kentucky Derby favorite.

What made it even more frustrating to his owners WinStar Farm and CHC Inc, was then having to watch Medina Spirit win the Run for the Roses after having fallen victim twice to Life is Good.

During his absence, Essential Quality, Medina Spirit, Hot Rod Charlie, and Mandaloun all emerged as the stars of the 3-year-old division. As Life is Good prepared for a summer and fall campaign, and with the best races being in New York and the New York Racing Association attempting to ban Baffert from racing there following Medina Spirit’s positive drug test in the Kentucky Derby, it was decided to move the colt to Todd Pletcher.

Although he was defeated in his return by the brilliant Jackie’s Warrior in the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens Stakes at Saratoga, he gained a good number fans with his gutsy performance, coming on again in the final sixteenth to be beaten only a neck by arguably the fastest horse in the country while coming off a nearly six-month layoff and running the seven furlongs in a near stakes record 1:21 1/5.

He then toyed with his opponents winning the one-mile Kelso Handicap at Belmont by 5 ½ lengths before romping by almost six lengths in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, giving him victories in one-turn and two-turn miles.

That concluded an unusual 3-year-old campaign, in which he went from early Kentucky Derby favorite to missing half the year with an injury and then returning with another trainer 3,000 miles away and picking up right where he left off, showing improvement with every race.

Life is Good was too late to have a shot at Horse of the Year and likely the 3-year-old title, but his fan base is growing and it’s looking as if he will get his chance to dethrone the overwhelming favorite for Horse of the Year, Knicks Go, in the Pegasus World Cup, which should be an epic battle of speed and will to see who cracks first. Who knows, by then, life may be great for the son of Into Mischief.

Now that you know the story behind each finalist it is time to let your voice be heard. So make sure you vote. Remember, this is your award.



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