Scully's picks for the 2015 Eclipse Awards

Profile Picture: James Scully

December 17th, 2015

Ballots will be arriving soon for the 2015 Eclipse Awards, which will be handed out at Gulfstream Park on January 16, and none of the remaining graded stakes races at Gulfstream Park, Los Alamitos and Santa Anita this month will impact my selections.

Three major categories appear close to me -- 3-Year-Old Filly, Turf Male and Jockey. I’ll give my thoughts on those races and a brief rundown of the obvious choices.

Barring head-to-head match-ups, no clear-cut criteria exists when it comes to separating championship contenders. Some voters are beholden to certain factors, like “total Grade 1 wins,” while others rely on an “eye test” for supremacy. And the weight afforded losses is the biggest gray area of all.

Voters often want it both ways when it comes to setbacks, with certain defeats being important and others irrelevant. For example, Stellar Wind supporters will use her neck second in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) to augment their position for champion 3-Year-Old Filly but may not give Turf Male contender The Pizza Man the same credit for a top-class head second in the Shadwell Turf Mile (G1).

Here is my take on the 2015 Eclipse Awards:

Obvious Winners

Horse of the Year & 3-Year-OId Male: After one of the greatest seasons of modern times, American Pharoah should be a unanimous selection in both categories.

Older Male: Honor Code won the race that mattered, defeating Liam’s Map in the Whitney (G1) at Saratoga, and his scintillating Met Mile (G1) victory stands out as well. The connections of Liam’s Map basically conceded the award when opting for the Dirt Mile (G1) over the Classic (G1).

Older Female: Beholder towered over the distaff ranks all year and made short work of male rivals with a dazzling performance in the Pacific Classic (G1).

Turf Female: Tepin made seven starts in 2015, posting five wins and a pair of close seconds, and she really came on in the last two, romping in the First Lady (G1) before an impressive 2 ¼-length victory over male rivals in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1).

2-Year-Old Male: Nyquist was brilliant at times and displayed plenty of grit as well, overcoming post 12 and a wide trip on both turns to cap an undefeated season in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). The four-time stakes hero is from the first crop of Uncle Mo.

2-Year-Old Filly: Songbird left quite a mark winning all four starts by daylight margins, the last three Grade 1 stakes. A daughter of Medaglia d’Oro, the Jerry Hollendorfer-trained filly rolled to a stylish 5 ¾-length decision in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1), leaving the well-regarded Rachel’s Valentina in her wake, and Songbird was arguably better than any male juvenile. Kentucky Derby speculation will heat up immensely if she picks up where she left off in her 2016 reappearance.

Male Sprinter: After being sidelined nearly six months, Runhappy made a huge impact in the second half of the season, winning the King’s Bishop (G1), Phoenix (G3) and Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) in succession.

Female Sprinter: La Verdad opened the year with six straight wins (she was disqualified once for a post-race test), including flashy performances in the Distaff H. (G2) and Honorable Miss (G2), and finished an excellent second in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) at a 7-furlong distance that isn’t her best. Her body of work should be sufficient in a field lacking a standout.

Owner: Zayat Stables went against a commonly-held perception – any Triple Crown-winning colt will be subsequently retired because too much risk exists in keeping the extremely valuable commodity in training – and continued to race American Pharoah, much to the delight of fans and the racing industry as a whole. And Ahmed Zayat refused to yield to outside pressures (breeders) even after a defeat in the Travers Stakes (G1). As a result of his perseverance, the 2015 Breeders’ Cup will be remembered as one of the greatest ever. It’s easy to admire Zayat’s contributions.

Trainer: Bob Baffert is the king of the Triple Crown, adding a fourth Kentucky Derby, a sixth Preakness Stakes and a second Belmont Stakes to his Hall of Fame resume. Most horses don’t sustain top form throughout an entire season like American Pharoah, who entered the year with injury concerns after being derailed by a foot injury the previous fall, and Baffert not only kept his charge healthy and happy, he orchestrated a tremendous rebound following the colt’s lone setback in late August. Baffert was also responsible for graded stakes winners Callback, Dortmund, Gimme Da Lute, Pretty N Cool, Sky Kingdom, Toews on Ice and Whiskey Trail in 2015.

Close Calls                                                                                 

3-Year-Old Filly: A tough call involving much consideration. After extolling the credentials of I’m a Chatterbox and Lady Eli in recent weeks, I’ve landed on Stellar Wind, who captured four of six starts in 2015. And my rationale includes giving her credit for the two setbacks. After opening the year with a pair of convincing stakes wins, including the Santa Anita Oaks (G1), Stellar Wind left the Kentucky Oaks (G1) starting gate as the favorite, but she suffered extreme interference during the early stages and was forced to take an overland route from well off the pace, closing courageously from 10th to fourth in the stretch drive. The Curlin filly came back to crush Grade 2 and Grade 3 foes in her next two starts in California but once again experienced a less-than-favorable trip in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1), with the stewards reviewing the stretch run after she was bumped and floated out by a multiple Grade 1-winning elder rival. Stellar Wind wound up a neck second, well clear of third, and the Breeders’ Cup wound up being the difference maker.

Turf Male: Another extremely close call. The Pizza Man and Big Blue Kitten met twice on the track, but neither was a serious factor in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), with Big Blue Kitten rallying belatedly for third and The Pizza Man offering an early move into contention before checking in fifth. In my opinion, the Arlington Million is a better gauge, a two-horse race in which The Pizza Man edged his rival by a neck after battling it out to the wire. And I’ll praise The Pizza Man’s outstanding runner-up performance in the Shadwell Turf Mile; his connections could’ve prepped for the Breeders’ Cup in a much easier spot, with the $600,000, 12-furlong Kentucky Turf Cup (G3) a perfect option, but elected to cut way back in trip as the gelding just missed by a head to Grand Arch, who was coming off a victory over Ironicus in the Fourstardave (G2) and went on to finish third in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. The Shadwell Turf Mile was a tougher spot than the United Nations (G1) or Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1), races in which Big Blue Kitten defeated the usual casts of suspects, and The Pizza Man was arguably more efficient versus less-than-stellar competition, shipping to California to post a facile tally in the November 26 Hollywood Turf Cup (G2). The Pizza Man won more stakes races than Big Blue Kitten and rates a slim edge as the best American turf male.

Jockey: This race shouldn’t be close -- Javier Castellano deserves a third straight Eclipse Award after a career-best season -- but I won’t be surprised to see my colleague Ed DeRosa’s less nuanced view, “the American Pharoah ticket” that rewards Victor Espinoza simply for riding the best horse, gain serious traction. As others have explained, Ron Turcotte didn’t win the Eclipse Award in 1973 after riding the great Secretariat, the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years at the time; and Jean Cruget wasn’t recognized in 1977 for the exploits of Seattle Slew, the only undefeated Triple Crown winner ever. The Eclipse Award recognizes the best jockey of the entire year, not a handful of races, and Castellano proved superior to his counterparts, winning multiple riding titles and capturing major races in every month prior to December. And he was the only jockey to beat American Pharoah when guiding Keen Ice to a Travers upset. Castellano has already smashed the all-time earnings record, with his mounts bankrolling nearly $28 million at this point, and he’s established a new mark for graded stakes victories while leading the nation by total wins. It’s been a special year for one of the most talented riders of our era.