Shared Belief the choice for champion and Horse of the Year
In this, Part II of my annual Eclipse Award commentary (Part I can be viewed here), I'll discuss my reasons for supporting SHARED BELIEF as champion three-year-old male and Horse of the Year and why I won't be supporting some of the other candidates for the two titles.
I wasn't the only one that billed the Breeders' Cup Classic as the likely decider of the three-year-old male championship. However, in a rare fit of prescience, I began that commentary/preview with the words "Barring unforeseen developments...".
The unforeseen did occur when Bayern broke sharply inward, taking the path of Shared Belief and instigating a chain reaction of bumping that severely effected the chances of the favorite and several others, if not knocking them out of contention completely.
Trouble of this magnitude is an everyday occurrence. Having watched tens of thousands of races in my lifetime, I believe most horses (including champions) can not be expected to and often do not sufficiently recover from this type of interference, or from lesser travails, to win. I believe it fair, given the circumstances, to give SHARED BELIEF the benefit of the doubt for his only loss of the season.
Two horses that should not get the benefit of the doubt for their Breeders' Cup Classic losses are TONALIST, whose championship aspirations ended with his fifth-place finish, and CALIFORNIA CHROME, who was a no-excuse third to BAYERN and lost for a second time in three meetings against that rival.
California Chrome is seemingly the favorite for this title, but transcending the sport, which you would expect a horse who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness to do anyway, in my eyes is a lesser qualification for the three-year-old championship than the transcending of the division itself, which California Chrome attempted to do once and failed. A late season turf win in the Hollywood Derby, a race restricted to three-year-olds and composed of a dubious field, did nothing in my opinion to enhance his title claims against two rivals that both won unrestricted stakes during the course of the year.
The undefeated juvenile champion of 2013 who was forced to miss the classics due to infirmities, Shared Belief remained unbeaten until the Breeders' Cup Classic. After romping in his first stakes outing of the year in the Los Alamitos Derby, he transcended his division by taking the Pacific Classic by 2 3/4 lengths over Toast of New York (who, if you will recall, beat California Chrome to the wire in the Breeders' Cup), and then overcame a terribly wide trip to score a courageous win in a controversial edition of the Awesome Again at Santa Anita. Both races were open to the world and both times Shared Belief conceded weight on the scale to his older rivals.
Bayern gets credit for winning America's signature weight-for-age contest, which makes him a more appealing candidate for the award than California Chrome, but effectively took out Shared Belief in the process. He proved slightly better than California Chrome at season's end and will get the nod as my (largely meaningless) second choice.
One of the most appealing aspects of Thoroughbred racing (as compared to, say, Standardbred racing) is the intergenerational tussles between three-year-olds and older horses. Unfortunately, this has become passé in the modern era as racetracks have shifted the dates of major three-year-old races and enhanced their purses, making them more attractive than unrestricted events of similar caliber. Horsemen, many of whom would dare not attempt to punch above their head until they absolutely have to, have fueled this trend by becoming more risk-averse with their better three-year-olds.
Races like the Breeders' Cup Classic and Jockey Club Gold Cup are still targets for leading three-year-olds, but races like the Metropolitan Handicap, Whitney, and Woodward not as much as they once were. Will the outcome of this vote encourage or discourage horsemen in the future from believing it is worth their while to run a three-year-old against older horses except in a select couple of races?
Horse of the Year:
I wrote this in 2009:
Many racing writers like to point out there is no established criteria for Horse of the Year. While technically true, that statement overlooks the established voting patterns of the past seven decades. The champion three-year-old male or the champion older male, whichever is better, has been the default choice of voters more than 60 times since formal polling began in 1936. That makes perfect sense as they are often the biggest stars of the sport and, physiologically, the fastest and strongest of the season's champions. In the absence of an impressive enough champion in either division, the top turf male is usually the most likely beneficiary of the gold Eclipse.
I continue to stick with that pecking order, under most circumstances, when deciding Horse of the Year. With PALACE MALICE making an early exit this season, Shared Belief and turf male selection MAIN SEQUENCE are the two worthiest nominees for the award.
In the 14 previous years I've had an Eclipse Award ballot, my turf male choice has been my Horse of the Year selection just three times: Cape Blanco (2011) and Wise Dan (2012-13).
Cape Blanco accomplished more than Animal Kingdom and Tizway (my older male choice) and was a slight preference over the worthy filly Havre de Grace. Wise Dan was better than I'll Have Another and Fort Larned (my older male choice) in 2012, and last year Wise Dan's qualifications were superior to Will Take Charge and Mucho Macho Man (my older male choice).
Main Sequence beat a world-class field in the Breeders' Cup Turf to conclude an undefeated season. Several of my colleagues whose opinion I respect are supporting him because of his record and what they perceive as the opaque nature of the three-year-old male division.
Shared Belief's success in non-restricted stakes is the best by any of my three-year-old male selections since Curlin captured the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders' Cup Classic in 2007. Due to the vagaries of racing, he was unable to give his best effort in the Breeders' Cup Classic. He has otherwise proven to be flawless.
I would not be disappointed if Main Sequence somehow gets the nod, but Shared Belief was the best horse I saw in 2014 and will get my vote.