I was accepted into the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters a few months ago, and with that came my first-ever Eclipse Awards ballot. I’m sure there are some people out there who are shaking their heads that I have a vote (I can think of at least two), but the meaning of this process isn’t lost on me. It’s an honor to be able to cast a vote for horse racing’s most prestigious awards, and this post will serve as an explanation for how I voted.
I’ve broken the awards down into several categories, and horses and humans that earned second and third-place votes will be in parentheses after my chosen winner. Like every year, there were some divisions that were easier than others, and there were a few where I could completely understand differing viewpoints. As you’ll see, there were two divisions where I simply could not bring myself to cast a vote, and I’ll discuss why when we get there.
On with the ballot!
Horse of the Year: Gun Runner (World Approval, Forever Unbridled)
Three-Year-Old Filly: Abel Tasman (Unique Bella, Paradise Woods)
Older Dirt Male: Gun Runner (Arrogate, Roy H)
Older Dirt Female: Forever Unbridled (Stellar Wind, Songbird)
Male Sprinter: Roy H (El Deal, Drefong)
Male Turf Horse: World Approval (Talismanic, Beach Patrol)
Apprentice Jockey: Evin Roman (Hector Diaz, Katie Clawson)
Gun Runner assured himself multiple trophies when he won the Breeders’ Cup Classic to cap off a stellar campaign. Had Arrogate not turned in one of the most impressive performances in recent horse racing history in the Dubai World Cup, he’d have managed one of the most dominant campaigns by an older horse in the past 20 years.
I was probably more impressed with Roy H’s campaign than some of my fellow voters. Had Drefong not run erratically after throwing Mike Smith in the Bing Crosby, the eventual Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner probably wins that race, which would have given him an undefeated season with three Grade 1 victories (plus a Grade 2 score). I even debated putting him second above Arrogate in the Older Dirt Male category, but ultimately decided against it.
Two-Year-Old Male: Good Magic (Bolt d’Oro, Sporting Chance)
Two-Year-Old Female: Rushing Fall (Caledonia Road, Moonshine Memories)
Both of these are up for some debate. I spent considerable time mulling over my 2-year-old male vote, but ultimately went with the impressive winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. I understand Bolt d’Oro raced very wide most of the way, but even if he’d been closer to the rail, my opinion is that Good Magic was probably still best that day. I also wanted to give an honorable mention to Sporting Chance, the Grade 1 Hopeful winner that has not run since. That proved to be a very live race, and he won despite ducking out badly late. Hopefully, we get to see him step forward in 2018.
I felt much more comfortable with my 2-year-old female vote. Caledonia Road was impressive in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, but I honestly believe this crop of dirt fillies was not that special. Rushing Fall showcased a turn of foot we don’t often see, and there’s a real chance the field she beat in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf was better than the one Caledonia Road dispatched.
PICK YOUR POISON
Three-Year-Old Male: West Coast (Always Dreaming, Oscar Performance)
I’m about to make a pretty unpopular statement. Had West Coast not run a decent third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, I would have likely abstained from this category. Once Oscar Performance faltered in two races against older horses late in the year, this came down to West Coast and Always Dreaming. The former won the Travers and Pennsylvania Derby emphatically, but skipped the Triple Crown races. The latter was brilliant at his best when winning the Florida and Kentucky Derbies, but head-scratchingly awful at his worst when nowhere in the Preakness and Travers.
Thankfully, West Coast finished in the same zip code as your likely Horse of the Year. In doing so, he did enough for me to be able to feel OK about casting my vote for him. Having said that, I’m a believer that there are some years, and some categories, where no horse is good enough to deserve an Eclipse Award. Keep this in mind later.
THE SENTIMENTAL CHOICE (BUT ALSO THE RIGHT ONE)
Female Turf Horse: Lady Eli (Wuheida, Off Limits)
There’ll be one heck of a Hall of Fame debate coming up in a few years with regard to Lady Eli. She won big races at ages two, three, four, and five, and not only survived laminitis, but came back to perform at racing’s highest level. This year, she won Grade 1 races on both coasts, which is not an easy thing to do.
This won’t be a unanimous vote. Lady Eli misfired badly in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf, a race in which she suffered an injury. Having said that, the winner of that race, Wuheida, raced just once in North America, and there isn’t nearly enough in the way of qualified other contenders for this award. To demonstrate that, Off Limits got my third-place vote despite having just one Grade 1 victory, which came in the Matriarch late in the year at Del Mar.
Even with the untimely dud, it’s tough to see any horse but Lady Eli winning this award. No other horse did enough to win it, and her story certainly doesn’t hurt. Should her story matter when it comes to Eclipse Awards and Hall of Fame consideration? That’s a question for another column.
TWO HUMAN AWARDS
Breeder: Clearsky (Besilu, WinStar)
Jockey: Jose Ortiz (Mike Smith, Irad Ortiz, Jr.)
Clearsky Farms bred Eclipse finalists Arrogate and Abel Tasman, as well as Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf runner-up Untamed Domain. That’s a heck of a resume right there, especially for a farm that’s fairly small in size, and I couldn’t look past it.
I went with Jose Ortiz over Mike Smith for a few reasons. Ortiz rode day-in and day-out for the entire year and established a consistent body of work few could match. Mike Smith had a phenomenal year, and he’s established a judicious strategy of picking mounts that extends his career deep into his 50’s. However, that judicious strategy works against him when compared to someone who takes very few days off. That being said, I wouldn’t be opposed to him passing along his map to the fountain of youth.
BOY, WAS I WRONG
Owner: Klaravich/Lawrence (Sol Kumin, Juddmonte)
Trainer: Todd Pletcher (Chad Brown, Bob Baffert)
My top pick for this year’s best owner didn’t even make the list of finalists, and neither did my chosen runner-up (more on him in the next paragraph). The finalists are Juddmonte, Godolphin, and Winchell/Three Chimneys, and more than any other category, this one got some scrutiny on Twitter when the finalists were announced.
One note on Kumin: We need new owners who have his apparent passion for the sport. He’s bought in on a lot of horses, and many have had success at the highest level. However, I couldn’t, in good conscience, vote him as the top owner in the country this year. It doesn’t sit well with me that we don’t exactly know how much of each horse he owns. Partnerships have their merits, sure, but if the situation is this murky, how can one partner be deemed more valuable than others who may be involved?
Pletcher wasn’t even a finalist. I understand why, but here’s my thinking. Pletcher won trainer’s titles at Gulfstream and Saratoga, and he also won two-thirds of the Triple Crown with Always Dreaming and Tapwrit. It hurts that his barn went fairly cold to end the year, but I thought what he did in the early part of the year made up for it.
BOY, YOU’LL THINK I’M WRONG
Steeplechase Horse: ABSTAIN
Like many of my fellow voters, I simply didn’t see enough jump races to be able to have an informed opinion. Rather than guess, I’ll leave this one to the experts.
Female Sprinter: ABSTAIN
(ducking the tomatoes and objects you’re throwing at me)
Time to explain the most controversial part of my ballot. I am not against honoring the top female sprinter in the country. However, I’m far from convinced we had a single top-tier runner in that division. Let’s run through the list, shall we?
Had the year ended in mid-August, Paulassilverlining would have been a solid choice. However, she misfired in both the Ballerina and the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. A single in-the-money finish in either event probably would have made her the recipient of my vote, but I simply couldn’t vote for her given when the switch flipped and how big the difference in form was.
Similar can be said for Lady Aurelia. I know most of her campaign came outside the United States. Had she run well in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint against males, though, it would have been difficult to vote against her. Given how much Paulassilverlining tailed off, she probably didn’t even have to win. However, for the first time in her career, she ran a clunker, and given her lack of American-based success, I couldn’t vote for her.
Unique Bella? She won the Grade 1 La Brea, but her only victory against older competition came in a Grade 3, she spent the early part of the year routing, and her dud on Breeders’ Cup day is a big strike against her. Bar of Gold? She did nothing besides a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, which proved to be a very oddly-run race. Finley’sluckycharm? Never won a Grade 1. American Gal? Didn’t run after the Test (which was a shame, because I think she may have secretly been the best 3-year-old filly in the country this year when healthy).
Please tell me, with a straight face, why I should have felt confident casting a vote for any of these horses. Simply put, I didn’t think any of the runners I mentioned put together a campaign from start to finish that merited an Eclipse Award in this category. I can’t praise Paulassilverlining’s early success without mentioning her late-season struggles. I can’t give Lady Aurelia a North American-based award when most of her success came in Europe. I can’t say Unique Bella is an elite sprinter when her lone sprints against older horses were an OK Grade 3 win and a dud in the division’s biggest race, and no other horse did enough to even merit consideration. Add all of this up, and you get an abstention from yours truly.