One man's Eclipse Award ballot (Part I)
The 2014 racing season is near complete and so is the Eclipse Award ballot I will be filling out electronically later this month. In the past I've waited until all my selections in the equine categories were decided before I revealed them publicly, but this time around I'm releasing my choices in two separate posts. Being in a teaser type of mood, my picks for three-year-old male and Horse of the Year, arguably the most hotly debated categories of the year, will come in about two weeks.
This will be my 15th year of having a say in racing's year-end championships. With the exception of 2008, I've had the privilege of voting every year since 1999. For some background on my past selections (which occasionally reveals my methodology), I'll refer you to my 2009, 2010 (the controversial Blame v. Zenyatta piece), 2011, 2012, and 2013 commentaries.
As is customary, I'll briefly mention the no-brainers before touching on the more competitive categories.
Three-year-old filly: UNTAPABLE.
Turf female: DAYATTHESPA.
Female sprinter: JUDY THE BEAUTY.
Turf male: MAIN SEQUENCE swept the United Nations, Sword Dancer Invitational, Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, and Breeders' Cup Turf, edging aside two-time champion WISE DAN, who was also undefeated in four starts but missed the Breeders' Cup due to injury.
Steeplechaser: DEMONSTRATIVE's wins in the New York Turf Writers Cup, Lonesome Glory, and Grand National, plus his 3-2 head-to-head advantage over reigning champion DIVINE FORTUNE, gives him the nod.
Male sprinter: Being undefeated in 10 career starts on dirt apparently isn't enough for some folks, but WORK ALL WEEK won the definitive showdown of the season in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Accepting that result, rather than being consumed by the quantity of "Grade 1" victories on the past performances of those who Work All Week defeated at Santa Anita, makes the most sense.
Older female: CLOSE HATCHES was great most of the year, taking the Azeri, Apple Blossom Handicap, Ogden Phipps, and Personal Ensign, but the proverbial wheels fell off as she finished up the track in the Spinster and Breeders' Cup Distaff.
Her candidacy caught a few breaks when Santa Anita-loving BEHOLDER couldn't make the Breeders' Cup and when DON'T TELL SOPHIA, who held a 2-1 edge head-to-head advantage over her, inexplicably lost the Falls City Handicap on Thanksgiving Day.
Seriously, the victory formation should have been employed following the Spinster debacle.
Two-year-old male: AMERICAN PHAROAH, who missed the Breeders' Cup Juvenile due to an untimely injury, was dominant winning the Del Mar Futurity and FrontRunner, and was most flattered when FrontRunner third-placer TEXAS RED made short work of the east's best colts in the Breeders' Cup.
Two-year-old filly: Viewing this award in a traditional way (i.e. the recognition of outstanding achievement on the main track), the most accomplished filly of the season is TAKE CHARGE BRANDI, whose three-race push from November 1 through December 13 sealed the deal after she won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, Delta Downs Princess, and Starlet.
I'm not entirely sold on her long-term prospects as the Breeders' Cup win was arguably aided by a track bias and her subsequent wins were more workmanlike than flashy, but combined they generally erase the bad memories of the summer and early fall stretches of her campaign.
Without the Starlet win I might've gone in contrarian mode and supported Alcibiades winner PEACE AND WAR. She was flattered in the Juvenile Fillies by Take Charge Brandi and runner-up Top Decile, who finished eighth and second, respectively, in that Keeneland fixture.
Older male: I've explained my views on the type of horse who I believe should be most eligible to receive this award here. Suffice it to say I've not been amused by the choice of the wider electorate for four of the past five years, and am bracing myself to be disappointed once again this year.
In a down year for older males on the main track, the horse that sticks out quite obviously is PALACE MALICE, who ripped off consecutive wins in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, New Orleans Handicap, Westchester, and Metropolitan Handicap before throwing in a season-ending dud in the Whitney.
For those put off by Palace Malice's relative lack of "Grade 1" success in 2014 compared to certain grass horses, consider this:
Since I became a racing fan, around 1986, the following main track races for older horses at a mile or over have been downgraded from Grade 1 status: San Fernando, San Antonio Handicap, Charles H. Strub, Californian, Mervyn LeRoy Handicap, Oaklawn Handicap, Widener Handicap, Gulfstream Park Handicap, Pimlico Special, Suburban Handicap, Brooklyn Handicap, Nassau County Handicap, Marlboro Cup, Philip H. Iselin, and Monmouth (Meadowlands) Cup.
In that same period, similar races that have been upgraded to Grade 1 status include the Pacific Classic, Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, Awesome Again, Cigar Mile, Stephen Foster Handicap, and Clark Handicap.
Doing the math, that's nine net fewer opportunities for older horses to earn Grade 1 black type at a mile or over on dirt in the past 20-30 years.
Given those numbers, there is no criticism of such sort from these quarters.