Eclipse ballot baptism by fire
The decision boiled down to the definition of "champion." If you privilege the Triple Crown races as the ultimate standard by which three-year-olds are judged, you'll stick with California Chrome. If you're drawn to the horse who displayed routine excellence, you'll endorse Shared Belief. And if you believe that the champion isn't necessarily one who's flawless, but whose best performances in your view edged the others, you'll probably side with Bayern, as I did.
Buried amid the controversy over Bayern's win in the Breeders' Cup Classic is a pretty rare historic accomplishment: Bayern is only the third horse to start the year as an unraced three-year-old and end it with a BC Classic victory, following Hall of Famers Tiznow (2000) and Curlin (2007).
And it's worth remembering that unlike Shared Belief, who was given plenty of time to get over his persistent quarter-crack at the beginning of the season, Bayern had little time to regroup after his bruised hoof in March. Not that the two setbacks were of the same degree, but the point remains that Bayern could have used more patient handling himself. Instead, this late foal (born May 3) was pressed to get back onto the Triple Crown trail, and it's understandable that he took a while to adjust to the crucible.
But when Bayern was on, he was spectacular from seven furlongs (Woody Stephens) to 1 1/8 miles (Haskell and track record-setting Penn Derby). However harshly he can be judged for the start of the Classic, he fought like a lion to hold on at the end of 1 1/4 miles, and beat Chrome for the second straight time.
Yet if I've talked myself into the idea that Bayern has a tenuous grasp on the divisional Eclipse, I can't make him my top choice for Horse of the Year. Wouldn't the golden statuette imply a more decisive advantage over his contemporaries than is warranted?
In my view, likely turf champ Main Sequence has the most appeal for Horse of the Year. Having crowned a perfect season in the Breeders' Cup Turf, he has welcome clarity in his corner. And more persuasively, he has a mouth-watering vein of collateral form, thanks to his defeat of quality internationals Flintshire and Telescope at Santa Anita.
My other choices were less tortuous:
Two-year-old male: American Pharoah looked potentially special when wiring the seven-furlong Del Mar Futurity and the 1 1/16-mile FrontRunner, only to miss the Breeders' Cup Juvenile due to injury. I wouldn't claim that Texas Red, the FrontRunner third, flattered him by romping in the Juvenile -- because Texas Red clearly improved -- but I also won't hold American Pharoah's forced absence against him.
Two-year-old filly: Take Charge Brandi is only the second filly to turn the BC Juvenile Fillies/Hollywood Starlet double, the first being Outstandingly (who was elevated via disqualification in the inaugural BC in 1984). That rare accomplishment deserves recognition, despite the brilliance of BC Juvenile Fillies Turf heroine Lady Eli.
Three-year-old male: Bayern.
Three-year-old filly: Untapable. Could anyone possibly not vote for the one who swept the Kentucky Oaks, Mother Goose, Cotillion and BC Distaff?
Older male: Palace Malice started the year with four straight wins, capped by the Met Mile, in which he carried the top weight of 124 pounds and beat two-time BC Dirt Mile winner Goldencents. In the process, he joined an exclusive club of horses to achieve a Belmont Stakes/Met Mile double. It's a shame that Palace Malice was sidelined for the second half, but no other horse in this division (and I mean older males on dirt) did enough to knock him off the podium.
Older female: Close Hatches tailed off abominably, but she had set the standard with peak performances in the Apple Blossom, Ogden Phipps and Personal Ensign. The other possible honorees were even less persuasive.
Turf male: Main Sequence, my Horse of the Year.
Turf female: Dayatthespa is the most reasonable candidate after finishing on a high note with wins in both the First Lady and BC Filly & Mare Turf.
Male sprinter: Work All Week took command of an open-looking division in the BC Sprint, thereby remaining perfect from 10 career starts on dirt.
Female sprinter: Judy the Beauty, who just missed to Groupie Doll in the 2013 BC Filly & Mare Sprint, earned a deserved win this time around to go four-for-five on the year.
Steeplechaser: Demonstrative clinched the honor with a trio of top-level scores.
Owner & Breeder: Flaxman Holdings, principally for Main Sequence, but also for winning the BC Mile with homebred Karakontie.
Trainer: Graham Motion, principally for Main Sequence, but also to honor his outstanding horsemanship throughout his career. Motion time and again helps his horses to reach their maximum potential, and Main Sequence is a perfect case in point. He'll probably never have the numbers to compete for the earnings title, but the Eclipse should be about more than that.
Jockey: Victor Espinoza merits recognition for his remarkable resurgence. He was the regular rider of possibly as many as three 2014 champions --American Pharoah, Take Charge Brandi and California Chrome.
Apprentice: Juan Saez is my choice for a posthumous honor, not merely as a sympathy vote, but to commemorate a true riding talent whose potential will go unfulfilled.
Photo credit: Breeders' Cup Ltd.
Photo credit: Bill Denver/Equi-Photo