And while on this subject, my colleague Dick Powell was right. In this age of instant communications, there’s no reason why the Eclipse Awards shouldn’t encompass a 365-day racing year.
Any racing season and the ensuing Eclipse Award voting process doesn’t end when ballots are mailed to the voters. Is the Malibu Stakes on opening day at Santa Anita not a Grade 1? Is the LaBrea not a Grade 1?
Ask the connections of Declan’s Moon whether the 2004 Hollywood Futurity run on December 18 made a difference.
I came to my ballot ready to concede the Filly & Mare sprint title to Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint winner Musical Romance, who owns more than a one-race resume.
But I couldn’t check her name off without first watching Turbulent Descent’s quest for a third Grade 1 victory on the last day of the year.
Turbulent Descent not only didn’t win but raced very poorly, showing no run in the lane after angling out into the clear at head-stretch. So it’s Musical Romance for me, 4-for-13 record and all.
Determining the best in show in several categories this year was a lot like what the Iowa caucus process was; the lesser of evils in the minds of many voters.
Not even the most loyal racing fan thought 2011 was a banner year on the Thoroughbred stage. It did have its moments, however, the game’s stars providing some of that impetus:
My personal favorite was Blind Luck’s relentless pursuit of Havre De Grace down the Stanton, Delaware stretch. But there were others of note: The bumper-cars Big ‘Cap; the O’Brien father-and-son act in the Turf; the entertaining Rapid Redux chase, etc.
But it is what it is, so let’s take a look:
Steeplechase, 4 Year Old & Up
Not a lot of productivity among the leading candidates. A two-horse battle as we see it, but we must make three selections in each category or votes in that section will not be counted.
Black Jack Blues dominated in both U.S. starts, including the Grade 1 Grand National with a season’s record of (8) 5-1-0, including a decision of his main rival, Tax Ruling, pulled up and eased in that event.
But Black Jack Blues declined the rematch in the subsequent G1 Colonial Cu, won by Tax Ruling, his second G1 this year, giving him a (4) 2-0-0 slate. With trepidation: 1. Tax Ruling 2. Black Jack Blues 3. Mabou.
Two Year Old Colt & Gelding
So, if I made an allowance for Tax Ruling, why not Union Rags, (4) 3-1-0, who had a much tougher time of things in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile after first winning a G2 and the G1 Champagne? Because Hansen’s speed made his own good trip at Churchill, and after prior victories by 12¼ and 13¼ lengths, he stayed undefeated. That counts for a lot. Still, with some reservation: 1. Hansen 2. Union Rags 3. Creative Cause.
Two Year Old Filly
Had My Miss Aurelia remained healthy, took on and defeated colts in something like the 9-furlong Remsen at 9 furlongs, I would have given her Horse of the Year consideration, such was the state of the game. Grace Hall was undefeated with a G1 on her card and was a good second in in Juvenile Fillies: 1. My Miss Aurelia 2. Grace Hall 3. Weemissfrankie.
Three Year Old Colt and Gelding
Competing in the classics, everyone’s goal on January 1 each year, makes you a part of the game’s lore, especially if you have success. Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom was most impressive, was most game and classy two weeks later, and most unlucky three weeks after that. But the racing year doesn’t end in early June.
Caleb’s Posse, admittedly a sprinter/miler type, won half his 10 starts, including the two-turn Ohio Derby, the G1 Kings Bishop over Uncle Mo and the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile over elders and Preakness winning Shackleford. That makes him the most accomplished in our view: 1. Caleb’s Posse 2. Animal Kingdom 3. Stay Thirsty.
Three Year Old Filly
With the exception of Royal Delta, various leading candidates took us to the highest levels then never could seal the deal. R Heat Lightning was a killer last winter at Gulfstream; then Plum Pretty took the divisional lead with Kentucky Oaks score. It’s Tricky won G1 Acorn and CCA Oaks back to back and Zazu, with her two G1s, was good all year. Defending champion Awesome Feather remained undefeated in two starts didn’t return from injury soon enough. Royal Delta, with Bill Mott calling the shots, simply improved with the seasons, each start more important than the last: 1. Royal Delta 2. Zazu 3. It’s Tricky.
Four Year Old & Up Male
Had Acclamation, winner of three G1s, only had one important victory on dirt. If only Game On Dude, or Flat Out, won the Classic. If Tizway and First Dude only made it all the way to Louisville.
If Drosselmeyer did just a little more, or if Wise Dan raised his profile; any of the above had a chance at the brass ring. But that was the other major disappointment in a racing year gone by; the handicap class. With qualification: 1. Acclamation 2. Game On Dude 3. Tizway.
Four Year Old & Up Female
Havre De Grace and Blind Luck need no introduction, but it might have been interesting to see what would have happened had Awesome Maria--4-for-4, all graded, one G1—Awesome Maria made it beyond June 18. Finally, a top class no-brainer: 1. Havre De Grace 2. Blind Luck 3. Awesome Maria.
Three Year Old & Up Male Sprint
Never thought I would land here but after taking the allotted time to deliberate, Amazombie deserves the honor. Slate of (9) 5-1-3 is first rate, earnings of $1.3 million merits respect—and I’m not an earnings guy—four graded stakes wins, two G1s, including the Sprint, and never off the board in six graded stakes. Accomplishment and laudable consistency: 1. Amazombie 2. Caleb’s Posse 3. The Factor.
Three Year Old & Up Filly Sprint
After Musical Romance, it was just as difficult. Ultimately I decided that winning half of six starts, including two G1s and a six-furlong score in 1:08.2 was good for place. Show was a female with a 4-for-7 slate, all graded wins, one G1, a track record of 1:20.2 and a couple of near records, too. Another difficult call: 1. Musical Romance 2. Sassy Image 3. Hilda’s Passion.
Three Year Old & Up Male Turf
A two-horse race at the top with the top candidates going 3-for-3 in G1s; the other with four graded wins in five graded starts, including two G1s, the most worthy. The third choice was more subjective:1. Cape Blanco 2. Acclamation 3. St Nicholas Abbey.
Three Year Old & Up Female Turf
It was just one tough category after another. No filly dominated open company; the one that was dominant was a three year old racing with her own kind who failed in her biggest test of the year. And so it was Stacelita with her two G1s and a placing in the G1 United Nations vs. males: 1. Stacelita 2. Dubawi Heights 3. Winter Memories.
How do you fit four candidates into three slots? You don’t. It was a breakthrough year for Derby winning Graham Motion. Bob Baffert was G1 prolific. Todd Pletcher was super prolific with many multiple graded-win days.
But it was Bill Mott that got the brass ring in prime time, his work with Drosselmeyer and Royal Delta things of beauty, especially the latter. And to get To Honor And Serve to finish on a high note after early season issues was the cherry on top: 1. Bill Mott 2. Bob Baffert 3. Graham Motion.
There are so many great athletes from which to choose. But for overall excellence and dominance without one mega-stable exclusively behind him; day-in, day-out; stakes-in, stakes-out: 1. Ramon Dominguez 2. Johnny Velazquez 3. Javier Castellano.
For doing it in all categories: number of victories; stakes wins; variety of entrants from G1 to claimers at all high profile meets; as a breeder, et al: 1. Ken and Sarah Ramsey 2. Team Valor International 3. Live Oak Plantation.
Parenthetically, love the idea that Ramsey bets his money, helping the handle wherever he races.
If the mere mention of the name Stronach didn’t almost always engender controversy, he could practically retire this trophy: 1. Adena Springs 2. Ken & Sarah Ramsey 3. Live Oak Stud.
Very subjective. From what we’ve seen, young riders able to coax run from their mounts, attain positioning with just the right amount of aggressiveness, and with an ability to finish, in a photo it’s:1. C J McMahon 2. Irad Ortiz Jr. 3. Ryan Curatolo.
HORSE of the YEAR
What a year; seriously thought of leaving this title open. But since the award will be presented in Los Angeles in any case, I decided to vote in Thoroughbred racing's version of the Iowa Caucus. Frankly, I fel there were very few viable options.
I settled on a standout individual that accomplished some notable goals, and for the willingness of the connections to raise their horse's profile when no one would have blamed them for taking a more prudent tack. Rick Porter is a successful horseman who knows how to cash out, but in this instance gave back to the game by making an unselfish sporting gesture.
1. HAVRE DE GRACE 2. Acclamation 3. Rapid Redux