HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, January 12, 2022 – Ordinarily, this is one of those columns that you mail in. Not that I’ve given the subject short shrift. If you love the game, it’s an honor for a turf writer to get an Eclipse Award ballot.
What makes it a mail-in is that it’s an easy column to write. You make your choices determined by divisional accomplishments, including the humans classification, then simply go on record.
But this year is different, it it’s not only the Baffert Factor that makes it so.
Maybe it’s the explosion in the number of super-trainers, and 1% owners who teamed up with their peers, share the equine wealth to be dispersed to many different trainers in all parts of the country.
We’re not being unduly critical here. If I owned a really good horse, competitive with the best members of his generation or division, I’d be ducking, too. Who wouldn’t much rather take their chances at 8-5 as opposed to 8-1, in the best interests of the horse and potential sire?
Consequently, there are fewer matchups to compare and fewer opportunities to win Grade 1 titles, defined by history as championship-making events. This year, past performances in virtually all divisions lacked winners who dominated in this category.
Only the certain-to-be older female champion, Letruska, compiled as many as four Grade 1s. There was a five-way tie for second at three, one being the prolific steeplechase mare, The Mean Queen.
And if she hadn’t mysterious bore in badly in midstretch and left the course, disqualified by rule after having the Jonathan Kiser all locked up in midstretch, she would have gone 7-for-8 on the year, with one runner-up finish.
Of course, by definition all votes are subjective—one voter’s opinion. But after first counting Grade 1s, we delve deeper, having utmost Eclipse respect for Grade 2 winners, look at matchups, weight, “schedule strength,” etc., and it all becomes pretty much routine.
There were several categories in which I didn’t feel confident in choosing the third-place finisher; I could not find one deserving. But it I didn’t complete the 1-2-3 balloting; my vote would be disqualified in that category. So…
Much as I would have loved to immerse myself in schadenfreude, I did not punish Bob Baffert’s horses, with the exception of Medina Spirit whose Kentucky Derby victory remains under an official cloud. Without that positive, he would have cracked my top three, and still might be a finalist for others.
Below are the 17 Eclipse categories, followed by a brief justification, if necessary, an overview of the division, with some honorable mentions that could have made the cut but didn’t because of the hair-splitting required:
Two-Year-Old Male: 1st – CORNICHE, 2nd – JACK CHRISTOPHER, 3rd – SMILE HAPPY
There it is, the undefeated Baffert on top and to date a 2022 Kentucky Derby non-participant pending litigation. Too bad ‘Jack’ was declared, rendering the pre-race buzz moot. Smile Happy deserves to be here, then so did Model Games, Rattle N Roll and Tiz the Bomb.
Two-Year-Old Filly: 1st – ECHO ZULU, 2nd – JUJU’S MAP, 3rd – EDA
Undefeated in four starts, three Grade 1s. a superstar juvenile filly. Will Ju Ju’s Map catch up to her at 3? There’s some intrigue there. Eda was 4-for-6 including the G1 Starlet.
Three-Year-Old Male: : 1st – ESSENTIAL QUALITY, 2nd – LIFE IS GOOD, 3rd – HOT ROD CHARLIE
This was a very tough call as Life Is Good finished a head shy of going 5-for-5, giving him a second Grade 2, and did go 2-for-2 vs. elders including the BC Dirt Mile.
Instead, we rewarded Essential Quality, who was 5-for-7, 3rd in the BC Classic, almost always had the target on his back. and won two traditional major events, the Belmont and Travers. Vox Populi ‘Charlie’ was accomplished and fun. Sprinter Jackie’s Warrior always demanded our attention.
Three-Year-Old Filly: 1st – MALATHAAT, 2nd – SEARCH RESULTS, 3rd – SANTA BARBARA
Malathaat made five starts, all in Grade 1 company, winning three, beaten a head when taken out of her best game, and had a tough trip leaving her with too much to do and a half-length shy of a Distaff victory. Could have flip-flopped the second and third fillies but leaned on the more traditional dirt path—and still not sure I made the right choice.
Older Dirt Male: 1st – KNICKS GO, 2nd – MAXFIELD, 3rd – LONE ROCK
An occasional gimme’ is appreciated… Maxfield wound up with a worthy (7) 4-2-1 slate but a lone Grade 1 in his career finale. Lone Rock for third as we tip our hat to a classy, courageous marathoner.
Silver State easily could have wound up third on our ballot and Mystic Guide might have been a champion had he remained healthy. Art Collector and Country Grammer (cq) each enjoyed about 10 minutes of fame.
Older Dirt Female: 1st – LETRUSKA, 2nd – SHEDARESTHEDEVIL, 3rd – SWISS SKYDIVER
In the running for possible Horse of the Year honors—until the Distaff debacle. Shedaresthedevil had a lower profile and accomplishments largely underappreciated.
Swiss Skydiver took the G1 Beholder in March but her gaudy and audacious three-year-old season began to catch up after that and should not be quickly forgotten. The physical issues caught up with Monomoy Girl. Marche Lorraine deserves recognition for her Distaff triumph.
Male Sprinter: 1st – FLIGHTLINE, 2nd – ALOHA WEST, 3rd – JACKIE’S WARRIOR
Thought long and hard about this one. It’s not easy to deny the BC Sprint winners but was the only bright spot in his season—a good one but not the championship kind on our view. As stated, Jackie’s Warrior played hard throughout the year but was soundly beaten in The Sprint.
Ordinarily, I never do this but Flightline, undefeated in three starts, albeit his own age group. including a Grade 1, might be the best horse in America. Full stop. Both recent wins, especially the Malibu, are, from a visual perspective and against the clock, indelibly etched in historical memory.
Female Sprinter: 1st – CE CE, 2nd – GAMINE, 3rd – BELLA SOFIA
Four-for-six including a rubber match with Gamine in the BC F&M Sprint. Gamine has one more Grade 1 but Ce Ce the one that mattered most. Bella Sofia in a photo over hard-hitting Bell’s the One.
Male Turf Horse: 1st – DOMESTIC SPENDING, 2nd – COLONEL LIAM, 3rd – GOLDEN PAL
In the end, a disappointing category, no one truly stepped forward in prime time. Note that the third finisher had not raced beyond 5-1/2 furlongs but was dominating at a high level of competition. If only Smooth like Strait won one of those early season Grade 1s, fortunes might have been different.
Female Turf Horse: 1st – LOVESONLYYOU, 2nd – SANTA BARBARA, 3rd – ALTHIQA
That’s right, only 1-for-1 in this country, but the one that mattered most, showing exceptional courage, and returned to win the Hong Kong Cup, his third Group 1 of the year. The runners-up both had two Grade 1s on their but had War Like Goddess only had an easier time of things in the BC F&M Turf, she would have gone from honorable mention to #1 on our ballot.
Steeplechase Horse: 1st – THE MEAN QUEEN, 2nd – SNAP DECISION, 3rd – BALTIMORE BUCKO
Lonesome Glory, Flatterer and Zaccio, memorable steeplechase champions of the past might someday welcome her into their elite Jump-Up club. Good job trainer Keri Brion, getting two (Baltimore Bucko) into our top three.
Owner: 1st – GODOLPHIN, 2nd – ST. GEORGE STABLE, 3rd – KLARAVICH STABLE
Guess it was only a matter of time before they could finish first in almost all major categories, but I have never seen such modern-day domination by one organization on both sides of the pond.
Breeder: 1st – GODOLPHIN, 2nd – STONESTREET THOROUGHBRED HOLDINGS, 3rd – WINSTAR FARM
What does excellence mean in 2021? Twenty-three Graded wins, in descending order (23) 11-6-6, nearly double the runnerup; 11 Grade 1s, nearly triple, first in earnings with $18.1M, first grade earnings $12.1M [DRF reported conflicting numbers of Grade 1s—10 or 11]. In either case, a lot.
Jockey: 1st – JOEL ROSARIO, 2nd – IRAD ORTIZ JR., 3rd – LUIS SAEZ
Joel was on track for record setting before season-ending injury and still led in the earnings category by year end. The runners-up need no introduction but honorable mention must go to these riders who had exception seasons: Jose Ortiz, Flavien Prat, Tyler Gaffalione, and ageless Jonny Velazquez.
Apprentice Jockey: 1st – JESSICA PYTER, 2nd – JOHN HIRALDO, 3rd – CHARLIE MARQUEZ
It was a toss-up. Some year it’s number of wins, some year earnings for us; we followed the money in 2021.
Trainer: 1st – BRAD COX, 2nd – STEVE ASMUSSEN, 3rd – TODD PLETCHER
Controversy notwithstanding, the top two finishers were record breakers, Asmussen’s more of the DiMaggio type. But our lean went to the trainer who conditioned and managed tow horses that dominated headlines throughout the year, Essential Quality and protem Horse of the Year Knicks Go
Horse of the Year: 1st – KNICKS GO, 2nd – LETRUSKA, 3rd – THE MEAN QUEEN
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