Not a lot of suspense or controversy in this year’s Eclipse voting, so I’m going to detour to a new award I’ve created. Racing Person of the Year, ala Time Magazine.
The Time title can be a slight misnomer. The winner doesn’t have to be an individual. It can be a group of people, such as The Guardians—people who challenged power—in 2018; The Silence Breakers—women who spoke up and started the Me Too movement—in 2017, all the way back to the American Fighting Man in 1950.
Nor does it have to be someone or something positive. Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin (twice) have made Time’s year-end cover.
Conforming to these parameters my first Racing Person of the Year is obvious: PETA.
Bolstering PETA’s selection is the fact that the two closest contenders for the greatest influence on racing in 2019 are an individual, Belinda Stronach, and an organization, the California Horse Racing Board. PETA has intimidated both into making drastic and in some cases pointless changes in the way racing is conducted.
Use of the whip is on the way to being outlawed in spite of evidence that new whips do not sting at all. A demonstration at a recent horse racing assembly showed that it can be inflicted upon humans without raising even a grimace.
Santa Anita has been coerced into agreeing to cancel racing if it is too hot, too wet or too windy. Baseball and football players—human beings—routinely compete under such conditions.
Each of these will be arbitrary calls by people pre-disposed to err on the side of covering their behind. If this isn’t enough, Santa Anita must cancel 12 racing days for no reason at all.
PETA is masterful at incrementalism. It didn’t bring down circuses all at once. It got the elephants taken out of the show, then the lions and tigers. Eventually, there was no reason for the Greatest Show on Earth to continue.
Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux has left California. So has future Hall of Famer Joe Talamo. Martin Garcia has bugged out, too. They won’t be the last. There are limited opportunities when five- and six-horse fields are the new normal. Fans are as dismayed as the jockeys.
Doug O’Neill, always among California’s leading trainers, is shipping 30 horses to other tracks out of frustration with the way things are going at Santa Anita. Multiple Breeders’ Cup winner Peter Miller has dispatched a string to Kentucky. The exodus is ongoing.
PETA doesn’t have to get states to end racing. It will die of its own self inflicted wounds.
PETA, often been branded a terrorist organization, has created a kind of Racing Stockholm Syndrome. “We’ll be good. We’ll do as you say. We know you really are our friend. Please don’t hurt us.”
Racing is groveling even as PETA is open and unrelenting about its ultimate goal to abolish horse racing. There is no compromising.
Racing must grow a pair and fight PETA on its own scorched earth terms. The industry needs to mount a campaign pointing out that for every race horse tragedy, PETA purposefully and unapologetically puts hundreds of dogs and cats to death. PETA’s donors need to be told that it totally rejects the concept of pets. Not many Americans know this. If they did, the attitude toward PETA would be what it should be: disgusted rejection.
There was a signature line in “Hill Street Blues,” my nominee for best commercial network drama of all time. Dispatching his officers each day, the sergeant would say, “Let’s do it to them before they do it to us.”
This should be racing’s attitude toward PETA.
The Eclipse Awards
The Eclipse Awards are a celebration of the best of racing. They also are an indictment of one of racing’s biggest problems.
The Eclipses are the sport’s way of saying, “These are our stars. These are the horses you should be excited about.” But what is the point when the stars perform as infrequently as Barbra Streisand?
My Eclipse ballot has eight horses capturing the 11 major awards for horses. Only two made as many as eight starts. One went to the post seven times. Two made six starts. Two likely champions made four starts. Another made three.
One of those who made just a half-dozen starts is certain Horse of the Year and Turf champion Bricks and Mortar. So the theoretical biggest attraction in the game was seen in action on average once every two months. How can anyone expect casual fans or potential new fans to get enthused about racing?
Here’s something to chew on. Maximum Security cinched the 3-year-old title in the Cigar, although this shouldn’t have been necessary. He had done enough already, especially compared to his leading challengers Code of Honor and Omaha Beach.
But suppose Maximum Security hadn’t gotten taken down at the Derby? He would have seven wins in eight starts, including America’s horse race. Would Bricks and Mortar still be a lock for Horse of the Year?
Thus it’s debatable that the Churchill Downs stewards not only took away America’s most coveted prize but also its greatest honor.
There probably will be some debate about my other selections for dual prizes. There is no contesting Mitole’s male sprinter supremacy or Covfefe as the outstanding female sprinter.
But I expect some might not agree with my designation as Mitole as best older dirt horse just because all his wins were around one turn. The same goes for my vote for Covfefe as outstanding 3-year-old filly.
There is no challenging Midnight Bisou as outstanding older filly.
Older turf filly is almost a coin flip. Uni and Mysistercharlie each had three wins and a third. Uni succeeded at the Breeders’ Cup against males. Mysistercharlie came up short against her own gender. Advantage Uni.
I cast a very unenthusiastic vote for Storm the Court in the 2-year-old male ballot. He won the big one, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, while no other horse of his generation won more than one Grade 1.
British Idiom gets my vote in the female category, again for winning at Santa Anita on Nov. 1.
I’m not optimistic either will be the leaders of their generation when they turn 3 but the Eclipses are for achievement not potential.