Three quibbles with Eclipse Award finalists, and a defense of Found

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

January 8th, 2016

My Eclipse Award ballot had much in common with the finalists announced Wednesday. Of the divergences, three stood out to me.

No Flintshire?! The most unexpected of all was the absence of Flintshire from the champion turf male finalists, and the inclusion of Golden Horn. Sure, Golden Horn beat him in their only meeting in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1), but we’re not staking out international classifications. Looking purely at their single North American performance, I would have thought that Flintshire was an obvious top-three selection off his Sword Dancer (G1) rout. Flintshire turned in the most scintillating victory of any turf male on this continent in 2015, while Golden Horn, for all of his valor on a surface he wasn’t handling too well, was subdued by Found (more on her later) in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). I was gobsmacked, shocked, that a horse who lost his only start here would be preferred to a horse who was utterly dominant in a smash-and-grab raid. Indeed, I’d been tempted to make Flintshire my top choice before siding with Big Blue Kitten, so he was a close second on my ballot.

Not so Keen on Ice? Precisely because the 3-year-old male category is “American Pharoah first, and the rest nowhere,” I thought that Keen Ice would at least get a mention for upsetting the Triple Crown champion in the Travers (G1). Admittedly, the Donegal flagbearer spent the first half of the season as a plodder, but he came on in the second half. Aside from entering Saratoga lore by catching Pharoah in the “Midsummer Derby,” thereby playing Jim Dandy to his Gallant Fox (I couldn’t resist), Keen Ice was also a fast-finishing second to him in the Haskell Invitational (G1). After Pharoah, he was the second-best sophomore in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) when finishing fourth. And he ended the season with a blistering fourth, beaten a diminishing length, after picking up a fraction too late in the Clark H. (G1). I can certainly understand the appeal of Dortmund, but it would have been fitting to recognize Keen Ice for spoiling Pharoah’s otherwise perfect season. Of course, there would have been room for both on my ballot, if it hadn’t been for Runhappy. Although I usually reserve this category to sophomores performing over classic distances, Runhappy was simply too good to leave out.

Forgetful of Belief? Honor Code and Liam’s Map were my respective top two in the older dirt male category, but I had to include the ill-fated Shared Belief as the third. As much as I’ve loved Tonalist over the course of his entire career, and even thought he had an upset chance in the BC Classic (how did I ever?), he just couldn’t compare to the tremendous displays of Shared Belief. Granted, we only saw him twice before he sustained his injury in the Charles Town Classic (G2), but they were both marvels. In the San Antonio (G2), he dusted California Chrome, with Hoppertunity a distant 6 1/2 lengths back in third. (I mention Hoppertunity only because he just missed to BC Classic runner-up Effinex in the Clark.) Shared Belief’s subsequent romp in the Santa Anita H. (G1) was a thing of beauty that will linger long in the memory. But apparently not long enough for the Eclipse electorate. To be fair, I understand the general preference for a season-long resume, but given his unadulterated excellence, Shared Belief would have been a most worthy finalist.

Lost and Found: Finally, the point about Eclipses recognizing excellence brings me to the tortuous 3-year-old filly division. All things being equal, I would generally agree with the gentleman from Minnesota, Vance Hanson, about this award honoring dirt performers.

But the problem in 2015 was that all things weren’t equal. It’s not too much of an oversimplification to say that the leading dirt fillies took turns beating each other. I’ll go further and argue that the messy, unsatisfying conclusion to the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) is a fitting snapshot of the whole season. While I agree with Vance, and our colleague James Scully, that Stellar Wind was the best of the dirt brigade, my sticking point is that I don’t think that measures up to the lofty standard set by a pair of standout 3-year-old fillies on turf, Found and Lady Eli, who were my respective top two.

In this respect, 2015 was an atypical year in the division. Dirt has historically been the dominant surface, but last season, the turf form struck me as superior. Even after Lady Eli was sidelined by laminitis, her formline continued to hover over ensuing graded stakes in her division. There was a stark clarity here, and a star quality, that was lacking on the dirt.

Then Found shipped in from Ireland and trumped her with a hard-fought verdict over Golden Horn in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. In the process, the Aidan O’Brien trainee also beat the two American-based finalists for turf male, Big Blue Kitten and The Pizza Man. No other 3-year-old filly can claim such notable scalps.

I can understand the reluctance to bestow a championship for one U.S. start, but when that is the single strongest piece of form that any 3-year-old filly has produced, it’s warranted. It’s especially warranted when that performance is history-making – no 3-year-old filly had ever won the Turf – and when it’s not some off-the-wall outlier, but logically consistent with her prior high-class form. For that reason, I was a little surprised by the negative reactions to Found’s being named a finalist, both on social media and on these pages by Laura Pugh.

In many years, there could have been a Solomon-style decision, by awarding Found champion turf female and thereby keeping the 3-year-old filly slot open for a dirt champion. But that theoretical option was obliterated by Tepin, who clinched champion turf female honors by beating males in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1). So the only remaining options are to recognize Found for her championship-caliber effort, or to recognize a dirt filly in a division lacking a standout, just because she ran in the usual races. I’d much rather reward clear-cut excellence, on any surface.

It’s perfectly reasonable to have contrasting judgments in such an open-looking year. I just don’t find it persuasive to abide by traditional principles, and privilege dirt regardless, when the racing landscape has literally changed so much.

Found photo courtesy of Keeneland/Coady Photography.