12/24/2011 5:02PM

By Acclamation


The most frustrating aspect of voting for Eclipse Award champions is being asked to perform the Solomonic task of chosing between a pair of compelling claimants to a title. Voters have had their fill of this the past three years, dealing with the lofty merits of Curlin, Rachel Alexandra and Blame as they related to the undeniable appeal of Zenyatta. By comparison, King Sol had it easy. One of the "mothers" in the question splitting the baby was a fraud and, in his wisdom, he figured it out. He also wrote some songs.

Eclipse ballots for 2011 honors have arrived, along with the fruitcake, and for the most part the answers are straightforward. As colleague (okay...boss) Steven Crist noted the other day, a few of the horse categories defy quick answers, but most of them can be done on the fly, and with barely a second thought.

I will leave it to the will of the people to identify the 3-year-old male champion. Since none of the names considered as candidates lives up even to the contemporary standards set by the likes of Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Curlin, Bernardini, Funny Cide, or Big Brown, the vote will be cast with a shrug of the shoulders. Fretting over Animal Kingdom (two stakes wins) or Caleb's Posse (no wins past a mile and a sixteenth) hardly rises to the agonies inflicted by the wrenching choices between Arts and Letters and Majestic Prince in 1969, between Key to the Mint and Riva Ridge in 1972, or between Wajima and Foolish Pleasure in 1975.

As for the puzzle of champion female sprinter, I'm still not convinced there even should be such a category, subverting as it does the raw, rampaging corner of racing history in which such mares as Pan Zareta, Affectionately, Ta We, Chou Croute, My Juliet, What a Summer, Gold Beauty, Safely Kept, Very Subtle and Soviet Problem made their bones in fierce combat with males. They did not require any form of affirmative action.

What really hurts, though, is to deny one of the two most accomplished male horses a championship, since both of them did the bulk of their business on grass. Cape Blanco has the Eastern, Midwestern and Irish delegations wrapped up with his three transatlantic scores -- the Man o' War, the Arlington Million and the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic -- an electoral reality that leaves Acclimation out in the cold despite his victories on California turf in the Jim Murray, the Charles Whittingham, the Eddie Read and the Clement Hirsch. 

There is a way to vote for both, though. Acclamation, for all his prowess on grass, also won a very competitive renewal of the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar, which gives him a legitimate place among the candidates for Older Male honors.  In his Pacific Classic he not only defeated Twirling Candy -- winner of the Strub on dirt and Californian on synthetic -- but also the 1-2 finishers in the Santa Anita Handicap, Game on Dude and Setsuko, the San Diego Stakes winner Tres Borrachos and Jeranimo, who went on to take the Oak Tree Mile and the Citation Handicap.

(At this point, those with a lingering prejudice against synthetic main track competition, like that which is found at Del Mar, are respectfully acknowledged. They are excused to turn elsewhere on the DRF site, and I would recommend Watchmaker, who offers an egg nog recipe to die for.)

Exceller, a Hall of Famer, is the patron saint of all those fine Thoroughbreds who find a crack and then fall through it -- in more sad ways than one. In 1978, aided and abetted by Bill Shoemaker and Charlie Whittingham, Exceller won the Arcadia Handicap, the San Juan Capistrano, the Hollywood Turf Invitational (now the Whittingham Memorial), the Sunset Handicap and the Oak Tree Invitational (now the Hirsch), all on grass, along with the Hollywood Gold Cup and Jockey Club Gold Cup on main tracks as different as night and day. The fact that such a record could not receive some sort of championship recognition was both a miscarriage of justice and a sign of the times, since 1978 may have been one of the hardest years in modern racing history in which to win a major stakes race, what with Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar, J.O. Tobin, Vigors, Mac Diarmida and Tiller also roaming the land. Exceller's death 19 years later in a Swedish slaughterhouse made his Eclipse Award snub both inconsequential and all the more heartbreaking.

In 1982, Eclipse voters were faced with not one but two horses of monumental achievement in a variety of conditions. Between them, Lemhi Gold and Perrault won the San Luis Rey, the San Juan Capistrano, the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Sword Dancer Handicap, the Arlington Million, the Marlboro Cup and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. One of them -- okay, Perrault -- also defeated reigning Horse of the Year John Henry by a nose in the Santa Anita Handicap but was disqualified for interference. You could have voted for either horse in either category -- Older Male or Turf Male -- and slept like a baby. In the end they both got trophies.

So excuse me for giving myself a present this Eclipse Award season. Cape Blanco had a great year over here, as did Acclimation out West in races ranging from 9 to 12 furlongs. The fact that neither horse was able to answer the bell for the Breeders' Cup should not be held against them. In fact, nothing should be held against them -- especially having come along in the same season. As soon as I can figure out the protected password and secret handshake allowing access to my Eclipse ballot, I'll be going with Cape Blanco on grass and Acclimation as an all-around champion Older Male, then sit back and enjoy the fact that Acclimation will be back in 2012 to try and do it all again.