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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


Making his first start since his hot, hard fought victory in the G1 Haskell Stakes, Kentucky Derby first Maximum Security returned from a 98-day layup to beat older horses in Belmont Park’s G3 Bold Ruler in very impressive style.

In doing so, he laid down the gauntlet for the 2019 Eclipse championship in the 3-year-old division and, depending on what happens next Saturday in the Breeders’ Cup Championships at Santa Anita, dare we think the whole enchilada could be in the offing.

Before you say “not so fast my friend,” or “aren’t you the guy who wrote that you think Omaha Beach is the better horse?” I am guilty as charged. But I work hard to be fair, and I’m ready to reconsider my position.

In terms of a divisional title, the pressure now shifts to Code of Honor, currently ranked as the top 3-year-old colt. If he wins the BC Classic, it’s game over. But if he doesn’t, and Maximum Security returns to win the G1 Cigar Mile, it’s also game over for me and probably the rest of the voters.

Let’s consider a positive outcome for both horses: Code of Honor wins the Classic, the country’s most prestigious race for older horses. That would give the son of Noble Mission his third Grade 1 win, one coming via a controversial elevation from second to first in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Maximum Security then comes back to beat his elders for a second time in the Cigar Mile. It would be the fourth time he finished first in a Grade 1, losing one of those via a controversial disqualification at Churchill Downs one Saturday in May.

There are no hard guidelines for Eclipse Award voting. Most writers, broadcasters, and racing secretaries I know begin assessing championship credentials by first circling all the Grade 1 wins in the past performances. Edge to Maximum Security given the above scenario.

If both are beaten in their upcoming Grade 1s, the championship becomes a jump ball. Contextually, the decision becomes a subjective, qualitative analysis. Stewards decisions are one thing; what happens between the fences is another, an objective and definitive result.

What we learned from the Kentucky Derby and JCGC is that winning isn’t necessarily everything. If you look at 2019 box-score and count up the firsts, seconds and thirds and the number of starts, all the wins are going to look like line drives.

When winning isn’t everything, context is. Without strict guidelines, the decision to check the #1 box is purely subjective, hence a jump ball.

Two upcoming losses in two big Grade 1 spots would lead to the same chaos that has defined the 3-year-old division throughout the year.

The only alternative to clarify that muddled scenario might be to tally the opinions of every steward working in America. After all, they got us into this mess; let them figure it out.

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7 Responses

  1. Guess this matters to some people, as a horseplayer though, makes no difference to me who gets whatever title.

    1. Fair point. Somebody’s feelings will always get hurt. Competitive business but you are right about it not making a difference when you go to the windows. John also right about having favorite horses. Mine was Seattle Slew. Purchased for 17.5k as a yearling. You do the math.

  2. Mal, Slew was my favorite, too.

    Denny, there are many players who feel as you do. It’s the reason when I make reference to racing’s customers, I always write “horseplayers and fans.” It’s a big tent, my friend.

  3. Code of Honor wins the Classic, he wins the Eclipse (although not necessarily my vote).

    Any other outcome in any other race and the title goes to Maximum Security. He has been beaten to the wire only once in eight lifetime starts.

    He beat Code of Honor in the Florida Derby and beat him again (stewards notwithstanding) in the Kentucky Derby. Code of Honor has yet to beat Maximum Security to the wire.

    Not disputing Denny’s and Mal’s comments. Eclipses are like MVP Awards in other sports, something fun for fans to chew upon but utterly meaningless in the big picture, which in racing involves going to the window and putting down your money.

  4. Hear you loud and clear TJ and if Maximum Security and Code of Honor win their next Grade 1 races, a vote for, say, Maximum Security, would certainly not be disqualifying in my mind. In fact, while the profile would not be higher–Travers, JCGC, Classic very impressive–but Max would have better overall record: W’s and L’s, so there’s that…

    My bad in this piece was not bringing up what could happen if they both are beaten and Omaha Beach wins impressively! Four-for-four since breaking maiden, three Grade 1s, and while, as my late, great colleague Paul Moran used to counsel me, “Horse of the Year is not a popularity contest,” I would still disagree with some of that.

    Given context, who has been the most talked about Thoroughbred in America this year? Given the Derby scenario, MAX was a transcendent story-line.

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