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Wednesday, January 18, 2012


We Are Fam-i-ly


PLANTATION, Fla., January 17, 2012—If you’ve ever tried to explain this game to someone untethered to the race horse, I’m sure you found it difficult to reconcile the fact that despite the intense and often manic competition, Thoroughbred racing is capable of rendering itself down to some equine version of Love Boat.

That was the sense one got while watching the 41st annual Eclipse Award presentation on cable TV Monday night, an evening that in my den would see Dr. Gregory House finish a very distant second to a real life Jeannine Edwards.

I confess that in my four decades of immersion into this passionate pastime, I’ve sat through my share of awards dinners, even hosted a few as a past President of the New York Turf Writers Association back in the day when the NYTWA actually honored those who toiled right in front of our press box eyes. Sadly, that’s a story for another day.

The point is that awards presentations, even those hosted by Ricky Gervais, can be tedious--speaking of which, I was very proud of the fact that on my imaginary Golden Globes ballot for actor in a television series drama appeared the name of Kelsey Grammar who, like George Clooney, found his role of a lifetime. But, I digress.

Edwards, easier on the eyes than either Gervais or Hugh Laurie, did fine work, getting out from behind a podium and helping to deflate some of the formal stuffiness of the occasion. I’m not sure everyone understood the sight-gag Tebow homage, and there might have been one too many without-further-ados, but that picks at nits. Edwards’ effort certainly was worthy of an encore performance at the 42nd annual.

The winners from three finalists in every category, except that for Horse of the Year, bore not a single major surprise, and it’s always good when the best, or most accomplished, horse wins. No one looks for value at Eclipse Award time, not even John Doyle, the 2011 Handicapper of the Year. Form has its place.

Even some of the more difficult classifications, that of top three-year-old colt, top steeplechaser, and almost all of the human categories, boasted finalists so worthy that no one could have taken serious umbrage with any of the Eclipse winners so honored.

At evening’s end I was disappointed there was no award for Caleb’s Posse, aced out by Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom for sophomore best-in-show, and by Amazombie in the Sprint category. Both winners were deserving, of course, and, on balance, it’s a good thing when classic and end-of-year championship winners are rewarded in tight races: The Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup events do so much shining a light on the sport.

Inevitably, awards ceremonies are not without its low-lights. There were audio glitches interspersed throughout the ceremonies and the lighting was described by one television professional I spoke with as funereal. Further, two observers reported that the DRF.com streaming presentation had many issues.

It was unfortunate, too, that Dr. Kendall Hansen found it necessary to speak so interminably that you could cut the awkwardness with a knife—especially after his eponymous race horse was the first so honored only minutes after Edwards implored, practically begged, that acceptance speeches be limited to one minute.

Martin Schwartz, owner of Eclipse champion turf mare Stacelita, was less overbearing, though it was the first time I’ve ever seen a legal pad used for making ceremonial remarks. Disappointing, too, that owner Barry Irwin and trainer Chad Brown felt it necessary to replicate Woody Allen’s award appearances. I’m sure logical explanations will be offered. Fortunately, the highlights outran the uncomfortable moments.

Given their contributions and passion for the game, tributes to the late Jess Jackson and Mace Siegel hit just the right note at the start of the evening, as did the roll of 2011 champions from races hosted by co-sponsor Breeders’ Cup Ltd. Among other personal favorites, listed chronologically, were:

Steve Asmussen seen smiling [reporters don’t get that much]; Actor John Ortiz deadpanning a silent imitation of trainer Julio Canani; Steeplechase trainer Dermot Ryan’s thoughtful acceptance speech for Black Jack Blues; Award of Merit recipient Cot Campbell’s love of the business; Bill Mott humbly congratulating fellow trainer finalists Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert and thoughtfully thanking all his assistants. The positives continued:

Handicapper John Doyle looking skyward to tell his dad that, 43 years later, “I’m at the top”; Rapid Redux owner Robert Cole giving “all the credit” to trainer David Wells; trainer Bill Kaplan [Musical Romance] thanking all the “unsung heroes” of the backstretch; the fun had by the SoCal camps of Acclamation and Amazombie—Bud Johnston [Acclamation] saying “the greatest part of the business are the people.”

There was ever classy Ramon Dominguez acknowledging “Javier and Johnny”; and two heartfelt moments as 19-year-old apprentice Kyle Frey, showing both presence and emotion, lifted his Eclipse trophy in the air, saying of his very recently deceased grandfather “this one’s for my grandpa.”

Then came ever ebullient owner Ken Ramsey, thanking four trainers who won Grade 1s for him in 2011 and, most of all, “the original kitten,” wife Sarah, who taught him three things—“to love your family, treat the horses well, and believe in yourself,” before breeder Frank Stronach thanked his wife for not allowing him to sell any of the broodmares.

At last, it was Rick Porter, the owner of Horse of the Year Havre De Grace, who on his second visit to the podium reminded all of “the highest of highs and the lowest of lows” that the game provides, allowing all to know he will never forget Eight Belles.

Porter was effusive in his praise of trainer Larry Jones for giving him, along with a Horse of the Year title, victory “in the Woodward at Saratoga, the most exciting race I’ve ever won.” He then thanked trainer Tony Dutrow for taking such good care of his filly at 2 and 3, before congratulating Jerry Hollendorfer and Blind Luck for helping to create a rivalry.

Jones declined an opportunity to close the evening with some final thoughts but earlier had thanked all his other owners for their patience and allowing him to travel the country with Havre De Grace. It was an evening of celebration, of competition and dreams shared with like-minded people: As Edwards also mentioned several times on Monday night; that’s what the game’s all about.

Written by John Pricci

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