Friday, January 03, 2014

Voting Your Conscience

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, January 1, 2014—One of the privileges associated with being a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association—incurring the wrath of readers notwithstanding—is getting to fill out an Eclipse ballot each year.

I can’t speak for all but every NTWAB member I know take their responsibility seriously as unofficial watchdogs of the game. And that’s what it’s all about: the sport, not the business, not the betting but athletic achievement equine and human.

And rewards for those who pay the freight; the owners and, to a certain extent, breeders.

Reviewing past performances at season’s end provides a snapshot of not only what transpired between the fences but a benchmark for comparing present-day competitors with those from the past that distinguished their careers with championships.

While there always are memorable performances throughout the course of any racing season, including this one, on balance 2013 was not a particularly memorable year.

Of the 10 Eclipse categories on the flat, only four categories boasted definitive championship credentials; two on turf and one of with two dirt would-be champs just holding on.

Rules require that voters indicate three graded choices in each division or have the entire vote in that section voided. If voters choose to abstain, they must write in Abstain on all three lines. I abstained in two categories. Here’s one man’s opinion:

Two Year Old Male: A difficult division to predict likely will come down to either Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner New Year’s Day or the undefeated late developer, Shared Belief. I’ve been pondering the awards off and on for nearly a month.

When I voted in this category I changed my mind as I began to fill out my ballot. The vote went to an undefeated winner of three starts, two in graded company including a Grade 1, albeit on a synthetic surface.

Switch post positions in the Juvenile and the top vote getter likely would have been Havana. But the best record of all major players belonged to:

1. Shared Belief 2. New Year’s Day 3. Havana

Two Year Old Female: Most likely award winner, She’s A Tiger, which finished first or second in five graded stakes, finishing first in the Juvenile Fillies but placed second via disqualification. Chrisellium was brilliant in the Juvenile Fillies Turf:

1. She’s A Tiger 2. Chrisellium 3. Sweet Reason

Three Year Old Male: In a division that went from potential Triple Crown winner to chaotic in a span of five weeks, Will Take Charge, the highly likely champion, danced most of the dances and finished with a flourish, just missing in the Classic and beating Game On Dude in the G1 Clark. Absolutely loved and admired the versatility of Goldencents.

1. Will Take Charge 2. Goldencents 3. Orb

Three Year Old Filly: Another category in which I changed my mind when it was time to put a name on the ballot. Beholder was dominant in THE filly and mare race of the year, the Distaff, on her home ground.

But I decided I could not punish the body of work compiled by Princess of Sylmar in and out of her division: the Kentucky Oaks, Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama are something of an equine holy trinity. Throw in the fact that she beat defending older champion Royal Delta before she completely went over the top and it’s not as if she didn’t split decisions with her only rival.

1. Princess of Sylmar 2. Beholder 3. Close Hatches

Older Male: Not the most memorable year in the handicap division, traditionally a dirt category. (It should be formally designated as such. Doing so does not preclude winning multiple titles when and where appropriate).

But it was the Macho Man that put two big ones together, including the race that every older horse—or three year old, for that matter—wants to win, the Classic, and in doing so beat every meaningful would-be handicap champion.

For his part, Wise Dan carried high weights but both of those wins came at the G2 level, beating four and five rivals respectively on his preferred surface. The voting will be very close but ‘Dan’ probably enjoys the edge.

1. Mucho Macho Man 2. Wise Dan 3. Game On Dude

Older Female: On balance, one of the weaker divisions of 2013. Any race with championship implications went through Royal Delta who tried Dubai again to no avail, the effort apparently exacting a toll at season’s end.

If every top filly in the division showed up with their ‘A’ race in the same event on the same day, the race would be for place.

1. Royal Delta 2. Joyful Victory 3. Tiz Miz Sue

Male Sprinter: A fairly open Eclipse race with the top of the division stringing together important victories—but not over a sustained period in 2013. The BC Sprint winner traditionally has had a huge edge in this category but winning Secret Circle had but a two-race campaign.

Sahara Sky was the most talented of the lot but he didn’t race beyond the Met Mile, an elongated sprint, on Memorial Day. Points Offthebench had the most brilliance in traditional G1s at 6 furlongs.

1. Points Offthebench 2. Sahara Sky 3. Secret Circle

Female Sprinter: Another category that was far from automatic due to the slow start of defending champion Groupie Doll. But she won when it counted as early and mid-season leaders started feeling the effects of spring and summer racing and she rose to the occasion, defending her F & M Sprint title.

‘Dolly’ did just enough, and the feeling is that most voters will agree. Dance To Bristol won seven straight before tailing off and Cluster Of Stars went 6-for-6 but only two G2s among them and did not step up when given a championship opportunity.

1. Groupie Doll 2. Dance To Bristol 3. Cluster of Stars

Male Turf Horse:
Finally, a slam-dunk automatic. Wise Dan is as talented as he is consistent; that’s how horses accumulate just shy of $6.3 million in earnings.

Magician won the traditional championship defining event but it’s not enough to dethrone a defending champion. Point Of Entry won two G1s then was injured, returning with a worthy effort in The Turf following a five-month layup.

1. Wise Dan 2. Magician 3. Point Of Entry

Female Turf Horse:
Since the best American bloodstock began filling stalls in Europe, the Far East and, finally, the Middle East, the best turf runners on balance race outside this country. Not even sure Dank came with her ‘A’ game, but it was still enough to handle our best turf distaffers in the F & M Turf.

1. Dank 2. Laughing 3. Kitten’s Dumplings

Steeplechase Horse:
As regular readers from Long Island to Saratoga know, I like the up-and-overs and enjoy the sport each week during the Saratoga meet. This year, however, no runner was able to put two important victories together. None of the finalists are worthy of a championship in our view.

1. Abstain 2. Abstain 3. Abstain

Outstanding Owner:
Don’t believe I’ve ever seen an outfit more dominant at the highest levels than the Ramseys were in 2013. They deserve to be heavy favorites. (I was thisclose to voting for Ed Stanco and company in this category. Clearly, Stanco is deserving of some equine Sportsman of the Year award; Willis Horton also stepped up big time.

1. Ken and Sarah Ramsey 2. King of Prussia Stable 3. Willis D. Horton

Outstanding Breeder:
Honestly, did anyone besides Ramsey think that Kitten’s Joy was capable of this?

1. Ken and Sarah Ramsey 2. Adena Springs 3. Juddmonte International

Outstanding Trainer:
It’s one thing to earn over $25 million for your owners because you have the most ammunition; it’s another to hit the bull’s-eye so often, so dominantly.

1. Todd Pletcher 2. D. Wayne Lukas 3. Shug McGaughey

Outstanding Jockey:
It’s one thing to make a successful comeback; it’s another to win the Distaff and Classic in the same year, among other Grade 1s. (Before he was injured, thought that Joel Rosario was a cinch; it’s now likely Gary Stevens will be).

1. Gary Stevens 2. Joel Rosario 3. Javier Castellano

Outstanding Apprentice
: Darn good year for young riders and another close call. Victor Carrasco is the likely winner with high accumulated earnings but Edgard Zayas has proven, the times we’ve seen him, to be wise beyond his years.

1. Edgard Zayas 2. Victor Corrasco 3. Emmanuel Esquivel

Horse of the Year
: As a sportsman, Morton Fink is a great businessman. If an owner insists on a horse’s preferred surface; that’s fine. But only once did Wise Dan try a distance beyond a mile and a sixteenth, Churchill’s Turf Classic on Derby day.

Instead the connections played it safe when the sport could have used a dramatic boost at season’s end. In his five pre-Mile victories, including two Grade 2s, he beat a total of 24 rivals.

Mr. Fink has a license to do what he wishes; I have a vote. No other horse this year compiled a compelling enough record to unseat a defending Horse of the Year. I’m sure most of the voters would agree and Wise Dan very likely will defend his Horse of the Year title easily.

As stated, it’s all about the sport for us when it comes to post-season awards. Consequently, we will pass.

1. Abstain 2. Abstain 3. Abstain

Written by John Pricci

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