Eclipse Award-winning trainers, in recent history, don’t win roses, don’t buy roses, aren’t fit to say, ‘Stop and smell the roses.’ In the last decade, three conditioners have been named Champion Trainer—think about that—Asmussen, Todd Pletcher, and the late Bobby Frankel: two, four, and four.
Going back nearly 20 years to 1993, only six different trainers have won the award. When you’re hot, you’re hot.
The last trainer to win the Derby in the year he was named Champion Trainer was Bob Baffert in 1998 with Real Quiet, the same year he missed the Triple Crown by a booger.
Nineteen ninety-seven was the last year a trainer, also Baffert, won the Champion Trainer award and then went on to win the Derby the following year. That doesn’t seem that long ago, but that was thirteen years now gone.
Since the Eclipse Awards’ conception in 1971, just 18 trainers out of 39 renewals have won the award. Frankel has won the most (five) with Pletcher, Laz Barrera, and D. Wayne Lukas sit one back.
Eighteen Kentucky Derby’s spread out among the eighteen trainers over 39 years.
Here’s the decade-by-decade breakdown:
The Eighties: Five
The Nineties: Seven.
The Eunucks: Zero.
Baffert and Lukas dominated the nineties with six Derby’s from the Eclipse winners. Carl Nafzger won the other in 1990 with eventual uber-sire Unbridled.
The ’80’s alone had seven different winners of the award and Lukas was the only trainer to win the Eclipse (1987) and then win the Derby the following year, that being 1988 with Winning Colors.
The ’70’s saw six trainers win the ward and Lucien Laurin had a decent baby in Secretariat in 1972 and a movie deal in 2009. The only horse to do that.
Laz Barrera won the Eclipse in 1977 and then won the Derby in 1978 with the last (the last?) Triple Crown winner, Affirmed.
This suggests three things:
1. That winning the Kentucky Derby doesn’t necessarily make a trainer a champion.
2. That there is validation and evidence to a calendar year than extends itself beyond the Triple Crown.
3. That the Eclipse Award winning trainer is cursed.
There’s the Sports Illustrated Curse, the Madden Curse, and now the Eclipse Curse.
Just look at the winning trainers of the past few Kentucky Derby’s alone: Chip Woolley, Rick Dutrow, Jr., Nafzger, Michael Matz, John Shirreffs, John Servis, and Barclay Tagg. No Eclipses, yet they posses the rose where others the thorn.
Aside from Nafzger (who had already won a Derby, albeit 17 years separated) and Dutrow (who trained 2005 Horse of the Year Saint Liam), all the names were obscure. And during this stretch of obscure names only three well-known names won Eclipses: Asmussen, Pletcher, and Frankel.
Take Asmussen, would he have been a slam-dunk to win Champion Trainer were it not for Curlin and Rachel Alexandra? Perhaps, because he did win 1,200 races over two years (think about that). But Scott Lake on the Maryland circuit and Gary Contessa in New York win hundreds of races and are never in the discussion.
No wonder why Asmussen says he’s as blessed as he is because he was handed both these super horses from other trainers.
He still had to train them, and he could have faltered. What Curlin and Rachel Alexandra did was shine a light on his operation and management that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. Just think of the pressure.
Pletcher’s Derby draught has reached the level of comic tragedy. He may be the best trainer never to win one. Golfers get slammed and pegged as the ‘Best to Never Win One’ moniker until they do, but Pletcher has escaped this ire, all trainers for that matter. At least Pletcher has proved to be the best all-around trainer in the country and that can be his scapegoat in all this. His program isn’t centered solely around the Triple Crown and dirt. He runs on the turf. He runs long. He runs short. He runs in the prestigious filly and mare races.
If anything, the Pletcher’s and the Asmussen’s have proved that even when you own the haystack, it’s still damn hard to find that needle.