For more than half of the first part of the 20th century, the best runners to come out of Maryland were glorified, eagerly followed and granted a lot of press. But they were never officially honored. That changed with the runners of 1962 when the editorial staff of The Maryland Horse selected the “best” of the year and published a “poll” in the January 1963 issue. Led by writer and magazine researcher Joe Hickey, with assistance of editor Snowden Carter and the magazine’s business manager Louise Pascal, six divisional winners (2-year-old male and female, 3-year-old male and female, older male and steeplechaser) and Horse of the Year honors were bestowed.
The announcement of the honors were explained: “In keeping with the long-standing policy of providing its readers with the last word, and bowing to the pressure of repeated public demands, The Maryland Horse hereby releases the results of the first annual ‘Best of Maryland’ Poll.”
While there were tongue-in-cheek explanations of what prompted the decision to create the poll, the three people making the selections had solid credentials, with a wealth of experience in the business, and noted they would follow ground rules to remain impartial, eliminating from consideration any horses with which they had connections.
Elmendorf Farm’s veteran campaigner Nickel Boy, son of a teaser and an unwanted mare, was named 1962 Horse of the Year and best older male off his hard-fought victory in the Jennings Handicap.
“Having received only one nasty letter from an irate reader upon publishing the list of ‘Maryland’s Best in 1962’,” wrote Hickey the next year, “the editor has asked the writer to take care of his ‘light work’ for him and compile the second annual ‘All Maryland List of Champions.’
“You will note that the word poll was not used, inasmuch as only one vote is being cast,” added Hickey. “So it is with temerity and a lot of nerve that this assignment is undertaken.” Adding a category for 1963, that of champion older female (which went to Double Heritage), Hickey chose as Horse of the Year the 2-year-old male Repeating.
The format of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association’s annual meeting, traditionally held in the old clubhouse at Pimlico, was changed in May 1964 and moved to Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Pistorio’s Turf Valley Club near Ellicott City. The evening included award presentations to the breeders of the best Maryland-breds of the 1963 season. Mr. and Mrs. Peter Jay, the breeders of Repeating, received the “Land of Pleasant Living Trophy” for the colt’s Horse of the Year title. Donated by Jerold Hoffberger on behalf of the National Brewing Company, the large bowl was designated a perpetual trophy to be presented each year, with a smaller replica given to the breeders for permanent possession. The whereabouts of the Land of Pleasant Living Trophy, which appears in awards photos throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, is now unknown, although Maryland-bred Horse of the Year recipients continued to receive a smaller, similar trophy until 2017.
Hickey selected the champions through 1968. The responsibility of voting then fell to Maryland racing secretary Larry Abbundi in 1969 (his Horse of the Year was champion older male Promise). Abbundi also made the selections in 1987, along with Jerry Brown of Thoro-Graph and the editorial staff of the Maryland Horse (Broad Brush earned his second Horse of the Year title that year). From 1970 through 1986, and 1988 to the present, the local racing media have made up the bulk of the voters, with members of the MHBA Board and other Maryland racing officials having opportunities to vote over the last decade.
In 57 years of Maryland-bred champions, eight were named Horse of the Year more than once, led by four straight years for Ben’s Cat (2011-2014). Taking two titles were Broad Brush, Cigar, Jameela, Politely, Richard’s Kid, Safely Kept and Twixt.
Ben’s Cat holds the record for number of awards with 17 – in addition to his Horse of the Year titles, he was champion turf runner five times and had four titles each for champion sprinter and older male.
Thirteen champions sired champions – Ameri Valay, Broad Brush, Cherokee’s Boy, Concern (by Broad Brush), Dancer’s Image, Deputed Testamony, Dixieland Band, Irish Tower, Love of Money, North Sea, Partner’s Hero, Rollicking and Smarten.
While Parker’s Storm Cat leads all stallions by number of awards (17), all earned by Ben’s Cat, Not For Love leads by number of champions with 13, his most recent 2018 steeplechaser Dawn Wall. Northern Dancer sired the winners of 16 awards, including multiple award winners Ajdal, Alma North, El Gran Senor and Northern Fling.
The number of divisions expanded twice after 1963, with the turf runner category added in 1966 (earned by Green Felt) and sprinter added in 2001 (Disco Rico). In 2006, European Group 1 winner Les Arcs became the first horse to earn as many as four titles in a year when being named older male, sprinter, turf runner and Horse of the Year, a feat repeated by Heros Reward in 2007 and Ben’s Cat in 2011, 2013 and 2014.