I see that while I've been focused on health care, there's a bit of a kerfuffle about the AP Female Athlete of the Year vote. Ann at Feministing and Mark Goldberg at Un Dispatch are both upset about two of the also rans (behind winner Serena Williams): Zenyatta, in second place, and Rachel Alexandra, in seventh. Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, as everyone should know but I suppose many don't, are horses. Is it insulting to vote for a horse as Female Athlete of the Year?
Since I follow the horses, I figure I should add my two cents to the conversation. The best year of any male horse in the last forty years is probably Secretariat, in 1973. It turns out that Secretariat did, in fact, receive votes for AP Male Athlete of the Year, finishing 6th, according to Chris Iorfida of CBC Sports, and he also finished at 81 in the AP Athlete of the Century list. According to a comment here, Barbaro and Smarty Jones have also drown votes for the AP yearly award, but I can't confirm if that's correct, and I sort of don't think so.
So: the AP award has included at least one male horse, which was probably the most celebrated one in the last forty years or so.
What I can add to this, for those of you who don't follow horse racing, is that Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra did in fact have extraordinary years. Probably two of the half dozens greatest years by any American filly or mare ever; almost certainly the two greatest years by a filly or mare over the last forty years. That they happened in the same year is a weird coincidence, but it's defintely true. Their seasons were so good that there's been talk among sportswriters who cover racing that perhaps the regular rules should be suspended so that both can be recognized as "Horse of the Year." (It's a foregone conclusion that one of them will in, although not clear which one).
So...my general feeling is that if Secretariat is qualified, then Zenyatta and Rachel are as well. If Smarty Jones and Barbaro received votes, then it's not even a close call. If not, then it's a closer call -- but I would say that there's nothing at all wrong with those three horses getting the highest honors of the last four decades (the other contenders would be Cigar, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed in their years, and I couldn't find the list of runners-up from those years). As far as comparing the two horses to the various human athletes, I can't say anything about that, since I don't follow any of the sports involved outside of racing.