The Eclipse Awards honor Thoroughbreds and individuals whose accomplishments through the year have garnered them status as Champion in their specific category. For those unfamiliar with the award, it’s what the Academy Awards are to the movie industry or the Grammys to the music industry. Members of the National Turf Writers & Broadcasters (NTWAB), National Thoroughbred Racing Association, and the Daily Racing Form cast their ballots, choosing a first, second, and third in 17 categories. The finalists will be announced live on HRTV January 8 and the winners announced at the awards ceremony January 18 at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla.
As a member of the NTWAB, I get to vote in the Eclipse Awards. There are no hard and fast rules or guidelines in voting, so every voter must determine what makes a champion. It’s not a task I take lightly or complete quickly. I’ve been thinking about whom I might vote for throughout the year as I’ve watched the races and I’ve devoted a lot of thought recently to who I feel best deserves the awards. What follows are my choices and my reasoning behind them. I didn’t list my reasoning in the people categories, but most of my choices involved sheer numbers and quality of races in accomplishments, as well as overall impact among fans and the sport.
2-Year-Old Colt: At this point in their young careers, you can’t knock a light body of work, but examine the quality of that work. 1) In only three starts, New Year’s Day went from maiden winner to Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner. He beat Bond Holder, who went on to win the Front Runner Stakes (G1) in his maiden win and beat Havana in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. 2) In Havana’s three career starts, he has a Grade 1 win over Honor Code (Champagne Stakes) and a runner-up finish to New Year’s Day in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. 3) It’s hard to make a third choice, but a case can be made for Strong Mandate. Although he only won one Grade 1 race this year (Hopeful by 9 ¾ lengths), he showed up for three and was third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
2-Year-Old Filly: Same as with the boys, it’s hard to judge the best of the best on a slight body of work. Although it seems fitting to give the Eclipse to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) winner, there has to be more to consider than one race. 1) She’s A Tiger was disqualified for interfering with Ria Antonia in the stretch of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and placed second. She’s still a baby and figuring things out, so I won’t let that bad behavior influence my vote. Before the Breeders’ Cup, She’s A Tiger had racked up three wins, including the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante, and grabbed place finishes in the Grade 1 Chandelier and Grade 2 Sorrento. She’s been first or second in six career starts. 2) Sweet Reason was fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, beaten only two lengths. She won the Grade 1 Spinaway and lost the Grade 1 Frizette by 1 ¼ lengths to Artemis Agrotera and finished nearly three lengths in front of the accomplished Stopchargingmaria. 3) Ria Antonia had a good day to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, her first graded stakes win. I’m excited to see what she does as a 3-year-old, but just like She’s A Tiger, her Breeders’ Cup performance is not going to be the sole determiner for my vote.
3-Year-Old Male: 1) Will Take Charge is a pretty easy choice for 3-Year-Old Male Champion. He wasn’t spectacular early in the year, with only two wins going into the Kentucky Derby (Smarty Jones Stakes and Rebel Stakes), and well out of the money in all three Classic races. However, he returned in late July as a new colt and lost the Jim Dandy (G2) to Palace Malice by only a length. He went on to pick up his first Grade 1 win in the Travers and grabbed a win in the Pennsylvania Derby (G2). He moved on to older company and missed winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) by a nose. That would have been enough to give him the lead in the 3-year-old division, but he solidified his place when he capped the year with a win over Game On Dude in the Clark Handicap (G1). 2) Goldencents started the year with a win in the Sham Stakes (G3) and went into the Kentucky Derby off a win in the Santa Anita Derby (G1), but was unable to show any brilliance in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness. When he returned to racing in late July, he moved up to older company and back to shorter distances, which seemed to work well, with three second-place finishes in Grade 1 and Grade 2 races and defeat coming no more than a length to the likes of Fed Biz and Points OfftheBench. He went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1), but finished the year with a loss in a tough Cigar Mile (G1). 3) I would not have thought going into the year that I’d make the Kentucky Derby winner third among my votes for 3-Year-Old Champion, but Orb did not pan out to be the best in his class. He garnered early success like Will Take Charge and Goldencents, but was unable to win another race after the Kentucky Derby.
3-Year-Old Filly: Beholder and Princess of Sylmar, with four Grade 1 wins each this year, clearly stand above the fillies in their crop. Either would be a worthy winner of the year-end honors, but my vote goes to 1) Beholder. She won the one race all fillies and mares strive to add to their resumes—the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) in which she not only beat Princess of Sylmar and two-time Eclipse Award winner Royal Delta, but did it with authority, besting the field by 4 ¼ lengths. In addition to this, Beholder won the Las Virgines (G1), the Santa Anita Oaks (G1), the Zenyatta (G1), and was second, by a half-length, in the Kentucky Oaks (G1). 2) Princess of Sylmar won the Kentucky Oaks (G1), the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1), the Alabama (G1), and the Beldame Invitational (G1), in which she beat her elders, including the aforementioned Royal Delta. She finished last in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff after a bad start. 3) Close Hatches finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff and won two Grade 1s—the Cotillion and Mother Goose.
Older Male: This is where the voting gets tough for me. It’s easy for me to make the nominees Game On Dude, Mucho Macho Man, and Wise Dan, but determining the order is difficult. Since voting is opinion based, every voter will have to come to his or her own conclusions on how to vote. I like to “spread the wealth” with my votes when faced with two deserving candidates in which one can lead multiple categories. 1) Game On Dude won five straight races this year—the San Antonio (G2), Santa Anita Handicap (G1), Charles Town Classic (G2), Hollywood Gold Cup (G1), and the Pacific Classic (G1). His only losses were his ninth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) and the head bob to Will Take Charge in the Clark Handicap (G1). 2) Wise Dan, with four Grade 1 wins, two Grade 2 wins, and an excusable second in the Shadwell Turf Mile (G1), could easily win this category, but he’s getting my vote in the top male turf category. 3) Mucho Macho Man didn’t get his first Grade 1 career win until September when he won the Awesome Again (G1) over Paynter. He proved that wasn’t a fluke by following it up with his Breeders’ Cup Classic (G2) victory. However, I don’t think that’s enough to put him ahead of Game On Dude and Wise Dan.
Older Female: 1) Although Royal Delta was twice beaten by a couple of fillies, she still won two Grade 1s this year, the Personal Ensign Handicap and the Delaware Handicap. She also won the Sabin Stakes (G3), was second in the Beldame Invitational (G1) and Fleur de Lis Handicap (G2), and traveled across the globe to make a start in the Dubai World Cup (G1) against the boys. 2) Joyful Victory won the Santa Margarita Stakes (G1) and the Molly Pitcher Stakes (G2). 3) Before suffering a minor setback that eventually led to her retirement, the 6-year-old Tiz Miz Sue finished in the money in four starts this year, including wins in the Ogden Phipps Handicap (G1) and Azeri Stakes (G3).
Male Sprinter: 1) Points Offthebench was poised to go favored in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1), but sustained a fatal condylar fracture in a workout days before the Breeders’ Cup. He won four out of five sprint attempts for the year, including the Bing Crosby (G1) and the Santa Anita Sprint Championship (G1). 2) Secret Circle, sidelined for 1 ½ years due to a 2012 injury, won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint after only one prep race. Coming back after that much time to win the year’s top sprint race, after one prep, is pretty impressive. 3) Justin Phillip won the Albert G. Vanderbilt Handicap (G1) and missed winning the Vosburgh Invitational (G1) by a neck. He finished no worse than fifth in 10 starts (all but one a graded stakes) this year and in the money in seven of them.
Female Sprinter: 1) Groupie Doll did not show the same brilliance this year as she did last year, but she shined at the Breeders’ Cup when she earned a repeat win in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1). She also repeated with a win in the Presque Isle Downs Master (G2). She closed out the season with a fourth place finish in the Cigar Mile (G1) against the boys. 2) Mizdirection excelled in the turf sprints, with a repeat win in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) against the boys, and wins in the Monrovia Stakes (G2), Buena Vista Stakes (G2), and Las Cienegas Stakes (G3). 3) Dance to Bristol slowly moved up the ranks and garnered seven wins in 10 starts for the year, including the Ballerina Stakes (G1), Honorable Miss Stakes (G2), and the Bed o’ Roses Handicap (G3).
Male Turf: As mentioned earlier, Wise Dan could have easily gotten my vote for top Older Male, but I’m giving him top honors in the Male Turf division. In addition to winning the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1), he won three other Grade 1s, two Grade 2s, and was second in the Shadwell Turf Mile (G1) that was taken off the turf and run on the wet Polytrack. 2) Big Blue Kitten won the United Nations (G1) and the Sword Dancer (G2), and lost the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational (G1) by a nose to Little Mike. 3) Point of Entry won the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (G1) and the Manhattan Handicap (G1) before a condylar fracture sidelined him. He returned nearly five months later to finish fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1).
Female Turf: 1) European invader Dank didn’t just come over to the U.S. and win the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1), she earned her spot in the race with a dominant 4 ¼ length victory in the Beverly D Stakes (G1), a Breeders’ Cup “Win & You’re In” race. In addition to her two U.S. Grade 1 wins, she won a Group 3 in Great Britain and a Group 2 in Ireland. 2) Mizdirection would get my vote for Female Turf Champion if Dank had stayed in Europe. See comments in Female Sprint category. 3) The 3-year-old Emollient finished fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf, only a length behind Dank. She won the Spinster (G1) and Ashland (G1) over Keeneland’s Polytrack and won the American Oaks (G1).
Horse of the Year: 1) Wise Dan again gets my vote for Horse of the Year. In addition to his four Grade 1 wins and two Grade 2 wins, he’s given racing fans something to talk about. His performance in the Firecracker Handicap (G2) at Churchill Downs this summer was incredible. Shoved against the hedge in the pouring rain when it looked like Wise Dan would lose his six-race win streak, he powered through a tight hole, brushed the hedge, and came out on top. I know there are some racing analysts that think he’s dodged the competition, but instead of trying to prove the horse on all surfaces this year, trainer Charlie LoPresti has kept Wise Dan where he’s best, on the turf. In my opinion, the surface is irrelevant in choosing horse of the year. When a horse can run virtually every month in the year and consistently perform at an elite level, he or she deserves to be crowned Horse of the Year. 2) Game On Dude 3) Will Take Charge.
Trainer: 1) Todd Pletcher 2) D. Wayne Lukas 3) Bob Baffert
Jockey: 1) Gary Stevens 2) Joel Rosario 3) Mike Smith
Apprentice Jockey: 1) Victor Carrasco 2) Edgard Zayas 3) Dylan Davis
Owner: 1) Ken and Sarah Ramsey 2) Zayat Stables, LLC 3) Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc.
Breeder: 1) Ken and Sarah Ramsey 2) Adena Springs 3) Mort Fink
Photo: Courtesy Churchill Downs