MIAMI, Jan. 15, 2014--The annual presentation of the Eclipse Awards Saturday brings still another reminder of racingâ€™s dirty little secret.
Itâ€™s the sacred cow status of Keeneland since it installed a synthetic track. Nine Eclipse categories have no surface restrictions. Of the 24 finalists (three have double nominations; Wise Dan has a third for turf), only three competed on Keenelandâ€™s Polytrack. One was Wise Dan, when the Shadwell Mile was taken off the grass. None won. Wise Dan suffered his only defeat when he ran second, Groupie Doll was third in the TCA and Palace Malice was second in the Blue Grass.
Keenelandâ€™s Polytrack has become the home of results out of synch with the rest of racing.
There is far more evidence that Keeneland has become an outlier among American racetracks since putting down fake dirt for the 2006 fall meeting.
Fourteen graded stakes were run on the kitty litter in 2013, including the relocated Shadwell Mile. Not one of the winners is among the final three in any Eclipse category.
As they say in the TV infomercials, but wait, thereâ€™s more. Keeneland annually presents six Grade 1â€™s, three in the spring, three in the fall. Groupie Doll last year and Informed Decision in 2009 both won the Madison en route to a female sprint Eclipse. The winners of the other fiveâ€”the Alcibiades, Ashland, Blue Grass, Breeders Futurity and Spinsterâ€”have produced zero Eclipse champions since Godâ€™s brown dirt was abandoned.
Since the fall of 2006, 38 thoroughbreds have won these five nominally top tier events. Not one has been voted an Eclipse. Over the past three years, only Groupie Doll and Stephanieâ€™s Kitten, who took the Alcibiades in 2011, have even been Eclipse finalists.
Nevertheless, it is considered heresy to even suggest that any be downgraded to a level more appropriate for the influence they have had on the sport. After all, this is Keeneland.
I have a better idea than downgrading the stakes. To bastardize some of the most famous words to come out of an American President's mouth, â€śMr. Thomason, tear up that track.â€ť
Eclipse categories lack clarity
As long as weâ€™re on the subject of Eclipse Awards, a familiar debate has been reignited.
Gary West, one of Americaâ€™s most respected turf writers, wrote a column arguing that Wise Dan would be a poor choice for Best Older Horse, because his successes were all on turf, which has a category of its own. In his view, Mucho Macho Man or Game or Dude must be awarded the prize.
Since Wise Dan won this award last year, West is in the minority. Moreover, Mizdirection, who never set foot on dirt, is a finalist among female sprinters, a category many consider a main track prize. Obviously, the majority viewpoint is turf counts.
This doesnâ€™t make West wrong, as anyone who has supported a losing political candidate will attest. West is doing the right thing, passionately arguing his position in the hope it will become the majority stance in the future. Alas, he went over the top, making it personal. He labeled others who donâ€™t see things his way "narcissists." Heâ€™s better than that.
Nick Kling, whose opinions are frequently expressed in Horse Race Insider, presented a cogent response to West in the Troy (NY) Record. Kling opined that as long as there are no specific rules, it is up to each voter to make a decision.
I have to come down on Klingâ€™s side. I voted for Wise Dan for best older horse last year and I did it again this year. He was 6-for-7, all stakes, four of his wins in Grade 1â€™s, including the Breedersâ€™ Cup Mile.
But if Game on Dude had won the Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic, which would have given him a comparable record, I would have voted for him for Horse of the Year and Older Horse, because all things being equal, dirt is still Americaâ€™s primary surface. But as it is, no one had a year close to the equal of Wise Danâ€™s.
This underlines the subjectivity of the Eclipse voting. Is an Eclipse champion the horse with the most stakes wins; the best winning percentages in graded stakes; the most Grade 1 wins; a Breedersâ€™ Cup champion?
When this yearâ€™s winners are announced, there will be some who fit into each of those categories. But there also will be non-winners (no horse outstanding enough be an Eclipse finalist should ever be called a loser), who fit within those parameters.
Racing is not alone in having debates of this kind. Every few years, when a pitcher has an extraordinary season, there are factions in baseball who argue that since pitchers have the Cy Young Award, they should not be considered for MVP. Occasionally they are over-ruled by the majority.
The Baseball Writers of America Association has had plenty of opportunities to clarify the standards. Instead, voters have been instructed to follow the same guidelines that also should be the rule for the Eclipse Awards. Use your own best judgment.
And donâ€™t denigrate those who have a different opinion.