History of Eclipse Award for Champion Three-Year-Old Male Can't Help Separate Nyquist, Exaggerator, or Arrogate
Barring an incredible late run from some other three-year-old male not named Nyquist, Exaggerator, or Arrogate, the Eclipse Award for that division is down to any of the winners of Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, or Travers Stakes.
The question is not whether Arrogate can usurp the classic winners for the year-end hardware but what he needs to do to do it. My colleague Vance Hanson makes the case for Arrogate going forward, and there’s no doubt that a Breeders’ Cup Classic victory would be enough to net the award.
Currently, Nyquist has the edge on my ballot by virtue of his win in the Kentucky Derby, but I can’t fault those who feel Exaggerator is currently on top with three Grade 1 wins. Like Nyquist, Creator also has two Grade 1 wins, but I value the Kentucky and Florida Derbys over the Arkansas Derby/Belmont Stakes double.
But can Arrogate win champion without winning again? No.
Going back to 1971 when the Eclipse Awards took their current form, no horse has earned champion three-year-old male honors without winning a classic race and/or defeating older horses. Travers Stakes winner Will Take Charge was the last champion three-year-old male who didn’t win a classic, but he did notch the Clark Handicap after a runner-up finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Other horses not to win classic races but win an Eclipse Award are Tiznow, Skip Away, Holy Bull, Slew o’Gold, Wajima, and Key to the Mint. Of those, only Tiznow and Wajima (like Arrogate) did not even race in a Triple Crown event, and while Wajima won the Travers Stakes by ten lengths (and beat Forego twice), Arrogate’s trajectory probably more closely matches Tiznow’s career—which, like Arrogate’s—started with a loss in the spring.
Of the 45 champion three-year-old males since 1971, 28 are Preakness winners while 24 won the Derby and 24 beat older horses. Incredibly, there are 13 champions who beat older but did not win the Derby and 13 Derby winners who did not beat older horses, so historical precedence favors neither Nyquist nor Arrogate in this regard.
One thing this year shares with 18 other championship seasons since 1971 is that there was no dual classic winner. In those 18 seasons, the champion beat older horses 14 times while the Preakness winner earned 5 Eclipses, the Belmont winner 4, and the Derby only 3. That favors Arrogate with a win against older. Of the four champions who did not beat older horses in a year with three different classic winners, three were Preakness winners (Lookin At Lucky, Prairie Bayou, and Snow Chief), and only one won the Derby (Animal Kingdom), which this year favors Exaggerator. Also of note among that quartet is that Lookin At Lucky was the only one to even face older horses (running against Blame and Zenyatta in the 2010 Classic).