My 2018 Eclipse Awards Ballot: Selections, Explanations, and Abstentions

That the very fabric of horse racing didn’t burst apart at the seams when I was given an Eclipse Award ballot as a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters is a minor miracle, but here we are. This is my second ballot as an NTWAB member, and like last year, I’m proud to share it, along with my reasoning for several categories.

A screenshot of my ballot is below.

Screen Shot 2018-12-30 at 8.43.03 PM

As I’ve already written, Justify would’ve been my Horse of the Year regardless of what Accelerate did. He’s getting a bad rap because of what American Pharoah did in 2015, and I don’t think that’s right. I respectfully disagree with Accelerate voters who believe beating older horses is important (in large part because this crop of older horses may have been historically awful). I have no respect for logic containing the belief that we need to de-emphasize the Triple Crown, especially when those espousing that were begging for a Triple Crown winner just four years ago. That logic is inconsistent and best and outright hypocrisy at worst.

Many of the other categories were pretty simple for me, though I found myself casting two “hold my nose” votes. I believe the Female Sprinter category shouldn’t exist, especially given the last two years. Unique Bella won last year despite a single Grade 1 win going short (and against restricted company to boot). This year, I voted for Shamrock Rose given her Breeders’ Cup victory. Marley’s Freedom had a case, and she may have been best in the Filly and Mare Sprint given her exceptionally-wide trip, but I can’t vote for her when she didn’t win the big one.

Male Turf Horse was another head-scratcher. I went with Stormy Liberal, given his Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint win and exceptional campaign that also included a tough-luck second in Dubai. I know that may not be popular with some given his distance limitations, but with all due respect, it’s not like any other American horse consistently got a distance of ground this year, either. In fact, had Heart to Heart hung on in the Shoemaker Mile, he may very well have gotten the nod from me here. He’d have had three Grade 1 wins at three different tracks. Alas, he didn’t, and I couldn’t put him higher than third.

With that, we move to the abstentions. I can’t ever see myself voting for the Steeplechase category. I don’t follow that division closely, and I won’t bring myself to cast an ill-informed vote that counts just as much as that of a jump-racing enthusiast. I know I’m not alone in feeling that way, and I wish there was a better solution.

In that same vein, the Owner category has turned into nothing short of a mess. Partnerships have done a lot of good for a lot of people in the sport. Having said that, when we don’t know what stake each owner has in a horse, how can we effectively judge any of them? Is a man who owns 25% of four one-time Grade 1 winners a better owner than one who owns 100% of a four-time Grade 1 winner? How are we to judge these situations when zero transparency exists?

As I mentioned in a previous article, Sol Kumin reached out to me last year and gave me some information on his enterprise. I appreciate that attitude, and I wish more owners had it. Personally, I want partnership information readily available so that we can adequately judge the merits of the owners involved. Until that happens, or until the partnership craze dies down, I cannot see myself casting a ballot in this category.

Justify, Accelerate, Horse of the Year, and Unfair Conundrums

A few days ago, top-notch turf writer and all-around good guy Jeremy Balan attempted to get a constructive dialogue going about Justify, Accelerate, and the voting for Horse of the Year. As most such attempts do, this went haywire quickly, with many respondents on Twitter unable to engage in basic discourse without resorting to tactics often seen during elementary school recess (seriously, folks, we’re better than this).

It’s no secret that I’m passionate about what I believe in when it comes to this issue. I respect Accelerate and what he accomplished this season, but I firmly believe an undefeated Triple Crown winner trumps anything any other thoroughbred could do in a single season. As such, when it comes time for me to submit my Eclipse Award ballot, Justify will earn my Horse of the Year vote.

I understand that others disagree with me on this, and I even get a few of the arguments. Justify didn’t run after the Belmont, and in the back half of the year, Accelerate captured three Grade 1 races (including the Breeders’ Cup Classic). Justify never raced against older horses, and this year’s crop of 3-year-olds (which looked promising at the start of the season) fizzled as the months went by.

However, I can’t help but feel like Justify is paying for something else. Let’s head to Peabody and Sherman’s WABAC Machine and travel all the way back to 2015.


No horse had won racing’s Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, and the sport had suffered through several agonizing close calls. Silver Charm never saw Touch Gold. Real Quiet was nosed by Victory Gallop (and may have been taken down had the photo gone the other way). Smarty Jones was several hundred pounds overweight, with half of the riders in the field ganging up on him before Birdstone picked up the pieces.

Out of the darkness came American Pharoah, a four-legged wrecking ball that had demolished two overmatched fields in Arkansas ahead of the Kentucky Derby. Despite being kept extremely wide on the first Saturday in May, he prevailed over Firing Line. A torrential downpour couldn’t stop him two weeks later in the Preakness, and the next month, he made the Belmont Park grandstand shake.

(Relevant tangent: I get a lot of arguments in favor of Accelerate, but the “we’re emphasizing the Triple Crown too much” argument needs to go the way of the dodo bird. In 2015, many of us were wistfully wondering if we’d ever see a Triple Crown winner again, and some in the industry openly wondered if the sequence needed to be changed to make it easier. We’ve gotten two since then, good for a mere 13 in a century, and suddenly it doesn’t matter as much? This is inconsistent at best and flat wrong at worst.)

American Pharoah was instantly revered as a legend. It didn’t matter what he did after that, or who he beat, or that he lost the Travers, or that Beholder scratched ahead of a highly-anticipated showdown in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Because he accomplished something no equine had in nearly four decades, the public was grateful for his presence and didn’t ask questions.

Justify got no such favorable treatment. It was only a three-year gap between Triple Crown winners, and the same guy who trained the last one got to do it again. Even considering Justify’s defiance of the Apollo Curse, his journey to racing’s pantheon seemed…almost ho-hum by comparison. As impressive as it was, there was a hint of, “we saw this movie three years ago, and that one was better.”

For purposes of this exercise, let’s assume American Pharoah either never existed or retired after the Arkansas Derby. In this alternate reality, Firing Line wins the Kentucky Derby, Tale of Verve wins the Preakness, and Frosted wins the Belmont. Racing continues to be without a Triple Crown winner until 2018, when Justify goes from an unraced maiden to the horse that snapped a 40-year drought in less than five months.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that such a scenario would make Justify one of the most beloved horses in history. He’s not seen this way because another Bob Baffert trainee won the same series of races while Justify was nursing.

I submit that such a conundrum is unfair to the horse’s legacy, and that this perception has altered the way some are approaching Horse of the Year balloting. If you’re more impressed by Accelerate’s resume given his year-long campaign and number of Grade 1 victories, I respect that (though I’ll exercise my right to amicably disagree). If you’re voting for Accelerate because of a distorted perception of the Triple Crown, its degree of difficulty, and what another horse did several years ago, I find that ridiculous.

THE DARK DAY FILES: Justify, Social Media, Bad Behavior, and a Challenge

In an age where it seems like the only people who get attention on social media are the ones with the loudest, knee-jerk reactions to hot-button issues and breaking news, I prefer to take a contrarian approach. This is why I’ve waited a week to offer my thoughts on the retirement and legacy of Justify, who, to the surprise of very few, has seen his racing days come to an end.

I’ll keep my thoughts on Justify pretty brief, as there’s a much bigger issue I feel the need to tackle (more on that later). The words “undefeated Triple Crown winner” have only ever been uttered once before this year, and it was when Seattle Slew finished off a nine-race win streak in the Belmont. Slew, of course, came back to run as a 4-year-old, when he treated the racing world to several battles with the likes of Affirmed and Exceller, and in fact lost his very first start after the Belmont (in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park).

Justify won’t get the chance to race into his physical prime. Instead, we must settle for horse racing’s version of a firework, materializing into something brilliant with rarely-matched flair and disappearing just as quickly as it arrived. Would racing have benefited from Justify running a few more times? Of course, but this is a horse that had nothing left to prove. “Undefeated Triple Crown winner” is as powerful a resume as an equine specimen can possess, and in a year where, to be blunt, the handicap division leaves much to be desired, there is no dirt horse Justify could’ve conceivably run against and beaten that would have enhanced his legacy.

As a voter for both Eclipse Awards and racing’s Hall of Fame, I can unequivocally say these three things.

1) Justify is Champion 3-Year-Old Male.
2) Justify is the Horse of the Year.
3) Justify is a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

With all due respect to the likes of Accelerate, Monomoy Girl, and others, “undefeated Triple Crown winner” is not a resume any other thoroughbred can top. Some may have a problem with him never facing older horses. I don’t.

This is where, unfortunately, my column takes a pretty sharp turn. If you’ve followed me on Twitter, you know that there have been a few instances where I’ve denounced the culture horse racing “fans” have created on social media. I put the word fans in quotation marks there because, in my opinion, if you’re not actively working to make the game better or more enjoyable for those who may see your content, you’re doing nothing productive, and you’re not a true fan.

At its peak, social media is a godsend. It’s a way to communicate with friends and loved ones, as well as a way to stay updated with regard to breaking news. I’ve made my career as a digital media professional for several different outlets, and I can attest to a number of times where the things social media allowed my employer(s) and I to do made for some pretty cool stuff. That’s one of the reasons I’m proud and privileged to do what I do for a living. At its nadir, though, Twitter is a cesspool where people with vile opinions and no regard for doing the right thing are given megaphones and an outlet for their rage.

Before I go further, two caveats: First of all, things that are openly satirical are usually okay. If it’s clear it’s parody, and if the stuff that’s being produced is all in good fun, it makes things more entertaining for everyone involved. If the subject can take a joke (and most people in racing are shockingly good-humored, or just don’t care about this stuff), that’s even better.

Secondly, I make an exception for people who make attempts to be critical in a constructive fashion. I have discussions about ticket structure all the time with a few handicappers I genuinely like and respect, and the exchange of differing viewpoints is all part of civilized debate, which is vital for any high-functioning society (and something that is becoming more and more rare of late!). I may disagree with someone’s thoughts on wagering theory. Someone may not think my ticket structure is sound. Both are perfectly okay, because there’s always an underlying element of respect in what’s being said.

No, my issues are with people who fit one or more of the following criteria.

– Think they know everything.
– Use the platform to say things to/about people that they would NEVER have the guts to say in person.
– Maintain a constant state of disrespect for those who interact with their content.

Needless to say, when Justify retired, many “fans” quickly checked one or more of these three boxes. A lot of people quickly determined that they knew more than Justify’s owners, trainers, or prospective breeders, while some others had incredibly strong views on his legacy and openly fought those who disagreed. There was at least one person who used this “opportunity” to bring up the incidents that occurred in Bob Baffert’s barn during the last days of Hollywood Park, when a number of his horses passed away under murky circumstances (Baffert was cleared of wrongdoing following a lengthy investigation, and you can read the report here).

I’ll ask one simple question, and I’ll happily take answers from anyone who wants to chime in: How does any of the behavior I’ve just described make the game better? People in racing that genuinely care about the sport are working hard to grow the game, especially given the likelihood of legalized sports betting within the next few years. This behavior, most of which is more suited for an elementary school playground, does nothing to entice people who would otherwise be new to the game to take an interest in it. Why do that when some of the most visible people on a social media platform come across as, for lack of a better term, completely miserable?

As a user of Twitter (chances are you accessed this column from there), you have the right to use the platform however you see fit, provided such behavior is covered by Twitter’s terms of service. With that in mind, shouting loudest, and in some cases most profanely or most condescendingly, does not make you a better or more authoritative source on the subject matter in question. Speaking as both a fan and someone who works in the sport on a daily basis, I have no patience for such nonsense, and it’s a big reason why I’ve taken a step back from my personal activity on the site.

If that makes me a snob, so be it. I’ve been called worse. The fact is that I expect better from people that read my content. Perhaps it makes me naïve, but I generally believe the people I interact with are good-hearted, intelligent folks looking to enjoy the sport that I’m lucky enough to work in. There’s nothing enjoyable about seeing stuff on social media platforms that’s downright rude.

We have a duty as racing fans to spread the good parts of this game to those who may not be as well-versed on the subject as we are. If we’re not actively doing that, we’re missing countless opportunities to make the game better at a time where, to be completely honest, the sport can’t afford it. If you think saying things you’d never say to someone in-person is more important than that, then I don’t have much time for you.

I’ll close with something that sums up my thoughts perfectly. If you’re a fan of the classic TV drama, “The West Wing,” you’ll love this. The lead-up to this scene is that Chief of Staff Leo McGarry is rallying the president’s senior advisors and challenging them to be better. It reflects the challenge that I’m issuing to you right now. If you think any of what I’ve said applies to your social media stances of late, stop it and realize that there are bigger issues in play here than egos and the need to be right all the time.

We can be better.

We must be better.


2017 Eclipse Awards: My Ballot, Explanations, and Abstentions

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.