Not every star gets an Eclipse: remembering five of the decade's best
Instead of compiling a list of the obvious stars of the past decade, I’ve found it a more intriguing exercise to recall significant performers who never earned Eclipse Awards. Not that they qualify as snubs – given their respective circumstances – but these five deserve to be remembered for championship-caliber ability.
Distaffer: Princess of Sylmar
As a thought experiment, imagine a three-year-old filly sweeping the Kentucky Oaks (G1), Coaching Club American Oaks (G1), and Alabama (G1), and dethroning an older champion in the Beldame (G1), and yet not receiving the divisional Eclipse. That misfortune befell Princess of Sylmar despite her stellar 2013 campaign. Compare this season, when it took four different horses to win those races. Of course, Princess of Sylmar lost year-end honors on the racetrack, by trailing home an uncharacteristic last behind Beholder in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1). At her best, however, Princess of Sylmar beat Beholder in the Kentucky Oaks and Royal Delta in the Beldame – not bad work to down two Hall of Famers (one enshrined and the other on the way).
Sprinter: Secret Circle
The only male ever to win two different Breeders’ Cup races, Secret Circle unfortunately had a stop-start career that prevented him from building up a sufficient body of work in a single campaign. Yet taken as a whole, his resume has historic proportions. The Bob Baffert trainee compiled a sterling 16-8-6-1 mark, never finishing worse than fourth. Victorious in the short-lived Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint on dirt in 2011 and the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) in 2013, Secret Circle nearly made it three BC wins when just missing in his 2014 title defense, and he crowned his career in the 2015 Golden Shaheen (G1) on Dubai World Cup night. He also had the class to stretch out early on the 2012 Kentucky Derby (G1) trail, capturing the Rebel (G2) and Southwest (G3) before placing second to stablemate Bodemeister in the Arkansas Derby (G1).
Classic winner: Palace Malice
Inconsistency, physical issues, and plain bad luck blotted his record, but Palace Malice is the best classic winner of the decade never to be honored as a champion. Although the son of Curlin was precocious enough to romp as a juvenile in a sprint at Saratoga, his pedigree suggested he’d flourish with maturity. Palace Malice scored a breakthrough in the 2013 Belmont (G1), but duly reached his peak at four.
The Todd Pletcher pupil emerged as a leading Horse of the Year candidate through the first half of 2014, his four-race winning spree capped by an historic victory in the Metropolitan H. (G1). Overcoming top weight and a tricky trip from his rail post, Palace Malice surged past Goldencents (then in the midst of his two Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile [G1] titles) to become the first Belmont winner in a half-century to add the Met Mile at four. The last to achieve the feat in consecutive years was Hall of Famer *Gallant Man in 1957-58. Note that in the interim, three others won both, but Sword Dancer (1959), Arts and Letters (1969), and Conquistador Cielo (1982) were sophomores tuning up for the Belmont in the Met. Palace Malice unfortunately didn’t hit those heights again after developing bone bruising.
Turf: Point of Entry
If not for a troubled trip in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), Point of Entry would arguably have extended his winning streak to six and posed an Eclipse challenge to Wise Dan. Might voters have opted for a Solomonic split decision, handing only the older male award to Wise Dan and giving Point of Entry the turf male division? We’ll never know since the Phipps homebred got checked cold early on the inside, had too much ground to make up at Santa Anita, changed lanes late, and came up a half-length shy of Little Mike, whom he’d drubbed in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1).
That was Point of Entry’s lone loss in an eight-race span that otherwise included such major prizes as the 2012 Man o’ War (G1) and Sword Dancer (G1) as well as the 2013 Gulfstream Park Turf (G1) (over Animal Kingdom) and Manhattan (G1) where he sustained an injury. That non-displaced condylar fracture effectively thwarted his hopes of a Breeders’ Cup triumph. Shug McGaughey got him back to the Turf all right, but without time for a prep. It’s testimony to his quality that Point of Entry managed to finish fourth, beaten fewer than two lengths, in his first and only start back from surgery. Had injury not intervened, the 2013 Turf should have been a more celebrated swan song.
Older male: Liam’s Map
If not for pilot error in the 2015 Whitney (G1), Liam’s Map likely would have held on rather than succumbing to Honor Code in a heartbreaker that proved decisive in the Eclipse voting. That was one of just two career losses for the Pletcher trainee, the other coming on debut.
Liam’s Map rebounded with an imperious display in the Woodward (G1), under a better-judged ride that rationed out his early speed. If anyone thought he was a one-dimensional type who needed to be up front, his Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile proved otherwise. The prohibitive 1-2 favorite endured a tough trip, steadying off heels and getting shuffled back among horses, but rolled once free to run down Lea in full flight and win going away. Too bad we never saw him again.
You can add your favorite candidates to this list and expand the categories. Considering how fraught with uncertainty a few of the 2019 Eclipse divisions are, it’s worth remembering how many worthy ones can miss out.