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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

HANDICAPPING THE ECLIPSE FINALISTS

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, January 16, 2021 — The 2020 Eclipse Awards finalists were announced yesterday and as expected revealed no major surprises, but with some disappointments.

Then doesn’t sport for sport’s sake–coupled with accomplishment or it would have little meaning– almost always finish a distant second to the bottom line?

Here’s a take on the three finalists in each category with a prediction of who will emerge with the écorché horse statuette at the conclusion of Eclipse Award ceremonies. Nominees are listed in alphabetical order:

Two-Year-Old Male:      Essential Quality, Fire At Will, Jackie’s Warrior

Reflects the way we saw the division. If betting were allowed in this category, Essential Quality would win, paying $2.40 -out -out.

Two-Year-Old Filly:       Aunt Pearl (IRE), Dayoutoftheoffice, Vequist

Again, our top three and happy that, like Fire At Will in the male category, turf excellence was acknowledged by many in the final tallies. Expect that Juvenile Fillies winner gets the hardware. Breeders’ Cup Juveniles for both sexes widely regarded as true championship events.

Three-Year-Old Male:   Authentic, Nadal, Tiz the Law

Tiz the Law made headlines throughout the year but this is a tough game. As for Santa Anita Derby’s Honor A.P. and Jockey Club Gold Cup’s Happy Saver, the first was too little and the latter too late. Authentic walks over.

Three-Year-Old Filly:    Gamine, Shedaresthedevil, Swiss Skydiver

This could be close given the accomplishments and talents of Gamine and Swiss Skydiver. However, since an award is available for top three-year-old sprinter, in which Gamine is odds-on, Swiss Skydiver’s unusual and accomplished season figures to be recognized here.

Older Dirt Male:            Improbable, Maximum Security, Vekoma

Have seen lots of public disparagement of the choices but what were the alternatives? Want to drop one of these finalists in favor of Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Knicks Go? It was his only stakes start at even at the Grade 1 level, he could run off the screen twice and still not stack up of body of work is any measure.

Tom’s d’Etat? On top of our NTRA list for most of the entire first half of 2020, the problem for the seven-year-old warrior was the second half. Whitney third a disappointment, even with a legitimate excuse. But complete Classic no-show eliminated him from consideration.

Our pulse wasn’t racing either when we filled out our ballot but the game often demands taking what’s given.

Older Dirt Female:       Midnight Bisou, Monomoy Girl, Serengeti Empress

An exact match to what our ballot looked like. We considered G1 Apple Blossom winner Ce Ce and G1 Spinster winner Valiance for the third slot briefly—very briefly. Horse of the Year finalist Monomoy Girl gallops in this category.

Male Sprinter:               Vekoma, Volatile, Whitmore

Sentimentally, gelded seven-year-old Whitmore is a popular figure and Breeders’ Cup Sprint victory counts a lot but not as much as Vekoma’s two Grade 1s including the storied Metropolitan Mile, around one turn, of course. Deserving favorite in this category and very, very likely the winner,

Female Sprinter:         Gamine, Glass Slippers (GB), Serengeti Empress

An aside: There needs to be a category for Turf Sprint Champion given the number of races run each year in this burgeoning category, from field size to how the right filly absolutely can outrace the best of the boys.

In my view, Serengeti Empress’s G1 Ballerina and nose defeat in the G1 Raven Run were the most memorable efforts run by a female sprinter in 2020—her Raven Run was Jockey-Club-Slew-Like. But Gamine’s dusting of her by 6-1/4 dominant lengths following a stutter-step start in F & Mare Sprint was all she wrote in this division.

Male Turf Horse:        Channel Maker, Order of Australia (IRE), Zulu Alpha

A perfect match to our three but as mentioned previously, expect possible home cooking as Order of Australia had that lone U.S. victory in the Breeders’ Cup Turf and what a score it was.

Traffic and following a poor start in the Breeders’ Cup Mile from post 14 topping a 1-2-3 foreign finish spoke eloquently of the in-and-out record of older American horses on turf all year. Think this category is very contentious and wouldn’t stake my life on either one.

Female Turf Horse:       Audarya (FR), Rushing Fall, Tarnawa (IRE)

We took dual G1 winner Glass Slippers here over dual G1 winner Rushing Fall but have no issue; Rushing Fall the more conventional choice over sprint specialist but have absolutely no issue here. If Tarnawa’s three G1s isn’t enough for a title, this Eclipse category was rigged.

Steeplechase Horse:    Moscato (GB), Rashaan (IRE), Snap Decision

Slim pickings among the up-and-over division in 2020 and Moscoto figures to eke out the victory in the weakest steeplechase season we can recall.

Owner:  Godolphin LLC; Klaravich Stables Inc.; Spendthrift Farm LLC, MyRaceHorse Stable, Madaket Stables LLC, and Starlight Racing

Our feeling is that strength in numbers will overpower this category. It looks like the Spendthrift conglomerate has a leg up for two reasons, the mega-ownership team, and the fact that MyRaceHorse group attracted lots of publicity. It’s a good story and the powers-that-be probably would want to continue to attract 5,000-member ownership groups.

Breeder: Peter Blum Thoroughbreds LLC, Calumet Farm, WinStar Farm LLC

We’re thinking a two-horse battle between Blum, breeder of likely Horse of the Year Authentic, and Win Star, who bred many stakes winners including the remarkable Swiss Skydiver. Making a small wager on Blum.

Trainer:               Steve Asmussen, Bob Baffert, Brad Cox

Toss up: Baffert vs Cox, Authentic’s trainer the more likely of the two.

Jockey:                  Irad Ortiz, Jr., Joel Rosario, John Velazquez

Again, it’s either 2020 body of work, Ortiz; or Grade 1 wins in big spots, Rosario. Irad has, pardon the expression, a leg up.

Apprentice Jockey:     Luis Cardenas, Yarmarie Correa, Alexander Crispin

We abstained in this category for lack of sufficient exposure to these young men. Same goes here; best guess is Cardenas.

Horse of the Year:         Authentic, Improbable, Monomoy Girl

Some fans disparaged the choices in general but don’t know which other horses might be more worthy. Authentic won the two most important dirt races in America and mate Improbable won three Grade 1s and was second to Authentic in the Classic. Monomoy Girl was nothing short of perfect. We’ll tap out on Authentic in this spot. 

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15 Responses

  1. Maybe it is the impact of the current events in D.C., maybe just the constant retirement of leading three year olds, or maybe the never ending constant Baffert, Brown, Assmussen, and Cox winners, but this year I can’t get find much personal interest in Eclipse Finalists. My only vote as a fan interested in the sportsmanship of racing, would be with Kenny McPeek as the “Intestinal Fortitude Trainer of the Year”.

  2. McD, I run into that sentiment almost everywhere I look, and I completely understand it. It seems to me, understandably, that the events that transpired in the country overshadowed all other endeavors, including other sports, too, given truncated schedules that had to be adapted to the realities on the ground–or should I say in the air. I, too, find it difficult to get excited about anything.

    There were a number of standout performances that remains in the mind’s eye, Swiss Skydiver’s Preakness, the challenge, albeit failed one, that came when Tiz the Law made his run Authentic into the homestretch at Churchill Downs and, for me, Serengeti Empress’ nose defeat in the Raven Run. And there were a number of exceptional Breeders’ Cup performances that were memorable in a historic context.

    But to use the word excitement when reflecting on the events of 2020, just seems inappropriate. The atmosphere simply weighed too heavily.

  3. I love Whitmore’s story, but when there is a debatable eclipse race, and one of the 3 contestants won the Met Mile, they get the trophy. So it’s Vekoma to me.

    Jockey is a harder call for me. I watch a ton of racing, including every single NYRA race between live and replays. Despite my annoyance with some of his on track bag of tricks, I am quite confident that Irad Ortiz is the best jockey in the game, has been for a few years, and is likely to remain so for the upcoming years. But Joel Rosario had some absolutely amazing rides this year. Umberto Rispoli’s turf rides have been the same – he’s outwitted Prat and company on the So Cal lawn so many times this year I’ve lost count. But I go Irad, simply because he deserves it imo.

    I think I would have liked to see Todd Pletcher get a nomination at least for the trainers eclipse. I feel like dominating Gulfstream winter, then winning the Saratoga training title should merit some consideration. Perhaps Chad taking both Belmont titles splashed a little cold water on Todd’s year in their opinion? Of course then you have the question of which of the 3 guys would you remove? Juice or not, would be hard to not put Baffert and Cox in the final this year.

    Speaking of shadiness, how about this one: Hollendorfer has a horse running Saturday at Oaklawn that is owned by Frank Stronach. Hollendorfer is banned from entering horses at Stronach racetracks. That is about as ‘American Horse Racing in the 2000s’ as it gets unfortunately.

    1. Doc, actually voted for ‘your choices’. Personally wanted to vote for Todd but there just weren’t enough of huge prime time wins: not all Grade 1s are created equal. Meanwhile, since Saratoga and through Gulfstream thus far, he has been dominant everywhere. In terms of “Derby 3YOs,” he might be a deep as Baffert as we get closer to May.

      Agree about Rispoli on turf and while Irad might be the best overall, pound for pound, pick your cliche, Rosario picks more big rabbits out of hats than anyone and he doesn’t have a huge outfit behind him like Irad. Yes, Clement qualifies with many stakes winners but didn’t have a stable that dominates everywhere unlike his major rivals.

      Don’t know what to make of the Hollandorfer/Stronach connection. Maybe he feels bad for the guy; Frank’s no longer calling racing shots for TSG. But that’s a different conversation.

  4. PS – i am aware that Rispoli isn’t an eclipse finalist; just mentioning him since he would have probably been my 3rd candidate if i was choosing 3 this year

  5. Irad Ortiz is young, talented and as aggressive as Angel Cordero was, and with the top trainers looking for him but I would like him to take a chance with longshots once in a while… Just saw a $ 8000 claiming race at Aqueduct with a $22,000 purse which seemed to be excessive. Is there any kind of parameter, generally speaking, for purses according to claiming prices since I have seen a wide variance… I understand that smaller tracks offer smaller purses but to offer almost three times the claiming price seems a bit too juicy since the winner gets more than its claiming tag. Am I wrong on this? Yes, I know that maiden claimers get smaller purses when compared to winning claimers even if the price tag is similar. It is winter time at the Big A when almost daily an over 30-1 longshot wins a race and most scratch their heads wondering how and why.

  6. (above edited for brevity and context)

    JGR

    Jockeys are named at time of entry; the rider doesn’t know when his agent books a mount whether he’s even money or 10-1; that’s not how it works…

    Prices that are too high for claiming races was a problem a few years ago. Horses were dropping many notches, the purses compensation for the value of a horse “sold” cheaply. Bad racing, betting, and not good because when purses were disproportionately large in the past, horses were over-raced, a danger for all involved. So you’re not wrong about this…

  7. John: Its a very difficult task to determine whether or not the purse structure at NYRA is a detriment or a benefit to the game. I think that NYRA has done a tremendous job, during this pandemic, in keeping racing going in New York. With the inflated cost of doing business in NY, the purse structure must remain high to pay the bills. After conducting racing with a reduced purse structure during most of the summer and fall, NYRA and the NYTHA decided to conduct winter racing under the typical Belmont Spring structure. If you look at the field size so far, there seems to be some correlation with the higher purses. John, the issue of winter racing in NY has had a very controversial history. However, it provides a very steady income for many smaller outfits which don’t have the numbers or high-priced flesh to compete in the summer.

    1. Agree with everything you re posit winter racing, Fram, and in my heart I know that winter racing in NY is helping keep these people alive, literally, figuratively, and economically. Do believe it’s truly a matter of survival …

  8. I agree with most of your choices but I have a claim to make:
    1) Three year old filly and HOTY: “Don’t know which other horses might be more worthy”
    Swiss is the clear option for 3 year old filly and could have been a very worthy finalist for that award rather than Monomoy Girl because she accomplished something extraordinary that ONLY 12 fillies have done in history: winning a TRIPLE CROWN RACE. She won the PREAKNESS STAKES to the likely HOTY winner AUTHENTIC and 3YO COLT. Isn’t that an important feature to take into account for HOTY? Also, all of her triumphs from coast to coast with which she entertained horseracing fans around the world were in different states and racetracks with different jockeys. Isn’t that a plus to take into account

    No hate on Monomoy Girl, I admire her, but although winning the Breeders Cup Distaff in her comeback, which is outstanding, she DIDN’T DEFEAT ANY STRONG RIVALS in 2020. NONE of them (for example VALIANCE, HARVEST MOON, HOROLOGIST, LADY KATE, VEXATIOUS) are NEAR to AUTHENTIC’S QUALITY and that is a POINT to SWISS” FAVOR.

    1. Val, at this point the cake is already baked and Authentic would have to be odds on going in. But you only bolstered my case re Swiss Skydiver, especially the one of 12 filly winners of a Triple Crown race.
      We apparently so much appreciate the extended coast to coast campaign, exceptionally rare these days. I only hope she comes back the same filly at 4. She went many miles, by air, by van, by race by race. Sometimes campaigns take their toll the following season; hope that’s not the case. Thanks so much for your thoughts. It’s nice when true fans add to the dialogue here.

      1. n respect to Swiss, I was a bit surprised that you didn’t make any mention to her for HOTY because you put the following: “Don’t know which other horses might be more worthy” and I thought that you agreed for the nominees. Also, there was lot of polemic about her not being nominated to that award. Do you think she should have been to a finalist to that award instead of Monomoy Girl? Obviously, Authentic, another horse I love very much, should be HOTY.
        Glad we agree on something by the way! I think she’s gonna come back well because her campaign was tough, but not as Rachel’s, who IMO is the best filly in this century and ran 2 times against colts and 1 against older horses which is extraordinary. Sadly, she didn’t shine a lot in her 4 year old campaign, but became a Hall of Famer in 2016.

  9. In respect to Swiss, I was a bit surprised that you didn’t make any mention to her for HOTY because you put the following: “Don’t know which other horses might be more worthy” and I thought that you agreed for the nominees. Also, there was lot of polemic about her not being nominated to that award. Do you think she should have been to a finalist to that award instead of Monomoy Girl? Obviously, Authentic, another horse I love very much, should be HOTY.
    Glad we agree on something by the way! I think she’s gonna come back well because her campaign was tough, but not as Rachel’s, who IMO is the best filly in this century and ran 2 times against colts and 1 against older horses which is extraordinary. Sadly, she didn’t shine a lot in her 4 year old campaign, but became a Hall of Famer in 2016.

  10. Not sure what you mean, Val. In DEC 28 column, going on record with my Eclipse votes, I voted for Swiss Skydiver as Horse of the Year. I concede that Authentic will win the title but I voted for the filly…

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