Is it time for an Eclipse Award voting guide?

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

November 12th, 2014

Steven Crist recently wrote about an impending probability (“Older dirt horses need Eclipse of their own,” Daily Racing Form, November 8) in the upcoming Eclipse Award voting:

“For the fifth time in the last six years, the statuette for best older male probably will be redundantly bestowed upon a grass horse who is already being honored as the turf champion, instead of being awarded to the nation's leading older dirt horse.”

He is referring to Main Sequence, who completed an undefeated U.S. campaign with a mild upset victory in the $3 million Breeders' Cup Turf on November 1. If Main Sequence wins the older male award, he will join Gio Ponti, Acclamation, and Wise Dan (who double-dipped) as elected older male champions who accomplished little or nothing on dirt, which, Crist argues, goes against the spirit of what the award was meant to recognize since its inception in 1971:

“The intent of the award was always to honor the best older performer on dirt, not to play a semantic game and argue that since the grass champion was technically also older and a male, he should be given a second Eclipse.”

I would further add that in no other Eclipse Award category have we seen this issue crop up through the years, even if it would have made sense by the standards of today's electorate.

For example, Horse of the Year All Along's transatlantic four-race win streak over six weeks in the fall of 1983 was deemed not enough to give her the older female title over Ambassador of Luck, whose three stakes wins on dirt were at distances of 1 1/16 miles or less. Nor was Manila's record on grass in 1986, where he defeated older horses four times, enough to overtake as champion three-year-old colt Snow Chief, who had just one classic victory and did not win after Memorial Day.

I agree with the choices the voters of yesteryear made in those two cases as both All Along and Manila were properly acknowledged in their respective turf categories, but I vehemently disagree with the conventional wisdom that there have simply been no dirt performers worth giving the older male award to in recent years.

Granted, the 2009 group of older dirt males was arguably the least distinguished since 1970, but I wound up backing Macho Again, who won the New Orleans and Stephen Foster handicaps and missed in photo-finishes in the Whitney and Woodward, the latter to Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra. Macho Again, or another horse campaigned primarily on dirt that year, would have been viewed as an historically weak champion, but even the glamour divisions of racing don’t yield Hall of Fame-caliber types every season.

In 2011, Acclamation was named champion older male despite finishing well behind Game On Dude and Tizway, the two other logical candidates for the honor, in his only appearance of the year on dirt in the Charles Town Classic. Tizway, who won the Met Mile and Whitney in an abbreviated campaign, was my selection.

In 2012, Wise Dan registered a daylight victory in the Ben Ali over mostly grass performers on Keeneland's old synthetic track, and then finished second in the Stephen Foster in his only dirt appearance. While he did finish ahead of Fort Larned in the latter, that rival more than acquitted himself the rest of the year winning five of his other seven stakes appearances, including the Breeders' Cup Classic and Whitney.

Last year, Wise Dan was named champion older male again despite Mucho Macho Man's late-season surge of back-to-back wins in the Breeders' Cup Classic and Awesome Again. If a victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic, the nation's most lucrative race and its signature weight-for-age event, could not seal a championship for the likes of Fort Larned or Mucho Macho Again, it's hard to see what a dirt performer in the future can possibly do to satisfy the whims of a malleable electorate prone to ignoring the precedents set by the first generation of Eclipse Award voters.

The most logical candidate to be denied the champion older male honor this year based on the prevailing mindset is Palace Malice, who reeled off consecutive wins in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, New Orleans Handicap, Westchester, and Metropolitan Handicap before throwing a dud in the Whitney. He was subsequently retired for the year due to injury.

Crist suggests one way to halt this trend:

“Perhaps it is time to change the title of the award. Calling it "Best Older Dirt Male" would eliminate the rationalizations for doubling up on turf horses and honor the intent of the award.”

This extreme form of "handholding" would certainly have the desired effect, but it's sad that this should even be required. It also wouldn't make it up to those horses that never got recognized for their achievements on dirt because a majority of the electorate, ignoring precedent and intent, broadly defined who was qualified to receive the award.

Eclipse Awards and year-end championships were designed to recognize superior achievement in the present, but they’re also used as an historical reference reflecting what happened in seasons past. When later generations look back at these last five to six years of American racing, the implication will be that few older male dirt performers merited any type of recognition, and that I don’t think begins to tell the whole story.