12/28/2009 3:21PM

And the Winner Isn't...


Everybody with a blog, a telegraph key, or a piece of chalk and a hunk of sidewalk seems to feel obligated to divulge the choices they are making for the various Eclipse Awards honoring performances of 2009. This correspondent is not among them. It's not that I am embarrassed by my selections (although there would be arguments I should be), or that I suffer from some twisted form of agoraphobia, afraid to take my opinions out for a walk. It's just that I have always believed in the sanctuary of the voting booth, and the terms of privacy afforded while being part of a process that is far more significant than its individual components. As a voter with the National Turf Writers' Association, I had no choice. All votes were disclosed. Lately, voting as a part of the Daily Racing Form delegation, my selections have been as public or private as I've wanted them to be. Now, though, as a member of a digital community that tends to wear its heart, along with other vital organs, on its sleeve, I would feel remiss if I did not at least draw a couple of lines in the sand.

Z makes choice

My editors already forced my hand on the Horse of the Year choice, in a two-sided throwdown with Randy Moss, an esteemed broadcaster and clear thinker who has never let a trace of arrogance leak into his sure-handed delivery. He is racing's gift to football. After reading Andy Beyer, however, my life has changed (see http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/25/AR2009122501584.html). I was told, in a certain number of words, that I was a drooling moron for voting for Zenyatta, because there was not even a whisper of a debate required, and that if I insisted on doing so I should pretty much check my laptop at the door and go back to grouting tile for a living. But then, that is part of Andy's charm.

I will confess flat out that if California Flag had won the Hong Kong Sprint--instead of losing by less than two lengths after being hounded on the pace by a Japanese zero--I would have voted for him for champion sprinter without batting an eye.

I was taken aback the other day when an HRTV Eclipse Awards preview show did not include Ramon Dominguez among its top four candidates for champion jockey. I included Dominguez among my top one for the Eclipse Award, based on a season that was unrivaled in terms of both quality and quantity (were it not for you-know-who, it would have been Ramon in the Breeders' Cup Classic winner's circle atop Gio Ponti). Dominguez will end the year in the first three on the money list and not that far behind only Russell Baze in winners.

I do not want to vote for a breeder, because too many things happen between what they do and what we see on the field. I do not want to vote for steeplechase horses, because as much as I appreciate what they do, that is not the game I signed up to cover. And I have always been opposed to voting for a champion apprentice jockey because I think success at that particular job should be its own reward, and because they have a lot of life yet to live. Besides, the last thing they need to own up to, at the age of something-teen, is an Eclipse Award. It's like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to a first-term President.

This year I made an exception, though, for two reasons. First, I did not see the "abstain" button on the ballot. And second, in voting for Michael Straight, I felt like I was honoring an apprentice who gave up more for trying to live the dream of a riding career than ever should be required. He is 23 and he can't walk. As for those dreams...

In the category of trainer, the common wisdom concedes the statue to Steve Asmussen for his record setting season of winners and what could be, if Andy Beyer is right, his third consecutive Horse of the Year trophy (the last man to train three straight Horses of the Year was Carl Hanford, with Kelso, who reigned from 1960 through 1964).

However, those who vote for Asmussen based upon his statistical domination had better be prepared to do it every year for the foreseeable future. His setup is virtually slump-proof. Asmussen's business model of franchise operations at multiple tracks--both large and small--has combined the numbers of Jack Van Berg with the purse emphasis of Wayne Lukas, when they had numerous stables throughout the land. Lukas topped the money table 14 times between 1983 and 1997 but received only four Eclipse Awards along the way. Obviously, the novelty faded as Wayne's domination persisted. This should be Eclipse number two for Asmussen, and the end is not in sight.

There will be token votes for John Shirreffs, for his work with Zenyatta and Life Is Sweet, and for both Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert, whose numbers justify any amount of support. However, there was one worthy candidate who had a scaled back season, still admirable by his own lofty standards, who won't have a champion but should have a finalist in a couple of categories, and whose name has been synonymous with Eclipse Awards. This was also the last chance I'd have to vote for Bobby Frankel. So I did.

Rossington More than 1 year ago
The biggest reason of all that both Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra are the eclipse finalist are both's ability to beat colt's, period. So much is made of Rachel's victory against older male's in the Woodward, but much of the luster of that race is long gone. Bullsbay, finishing 9th of 10 in the B.C. Dirt Mile and 7th in the Clark Handicap. Macho Again, 4th in the JCGC and 9th in the Clark Handicap. Summer Bird in the Haskell is the "ONLY" truly talented colt that Rachel has beaten. On the other hand, Zenyatta, by winning the Classic, beat our likely eclipse older horse, and certain eclipse turf horse, she too beat Summer Bird, our champion 3yr.old colt, Einstein, a finalist for champion older male, Rip Van Winkle, multiple Group 1 winner and Europe's champion miler colt. Twice Over, multiple Group 1 winner in Europe, plus other Grade 1 winning colt's, and what weren't Grade 1 winners were multiple Grade 2 winners. Other than that, they both beat over matched fillies. But as it turned out, Zenyatta even got the best of that, having beaten the 09' Ladies Classic Champion Life is Sweet multiple times in 09'. I'm sorry but this is a no brainer. Quality of competition must mean something, and in that regard, it's not even close. If Zenyatta doesn't win HOY, it truly will be a very sad day for racing. She should've won it in 08' as well after Curlin was beaten on the turf and finished out of the money in the 08' Classic. JMO.
draynay More than 1 year ago
Rachel did not scratch and hide from a little mud like Zenyatta the fair weather poly pony. Rachel beat males on dirt 3 times and Zenyatta has never beat males on dirt in her entire career. Rachel is clearly the HOY.
Bob Bright More than 1 year ago
Leon, Both of the HOTY candidates were sensational. I get the impression that both blogger and journalist alike are going to punish Zenyatta because she didn't run on what they deemed a suitable surface. There are any number of top races on plastic today, tomorrow and some next week. What are you folks going to do when they run the Derby on some strange surface, mandated by the yet to be announced racing czar.
Bengal Bob More than 1 year ago
Jay- When I first read your Eclipse column about voting for someone who died or was seriously injured instead of voting based on accomplishment, I thought "That's a nice sentiment, but it's probably a misguided way to choose champions." But after reading ESPN horse racing writer Claire Novak's Eclipse column, I changed my mind. Claire has followed your lead and also voted Frankel for trainer and Straight for apprentice jockey. You are in good company Jay. I hope more people vote this way in the future!
afleetalexforever More than 1 year ago
Pete M, Rachel was never passed after the wire by any horse that she faced this year. Neither MTB or Macho Again passed Rachel after the wire, we all know Rachel galloped out 1/16th of a mile past MTB but in the Woodward she rebroke and galloped out a number of lengths in front of Macho Again.
Pete M More than 1 year ago
Sea Hero, there is a difference between winning by a nose in Zenyatta's case and being 5 lengths in front 100 yards after the wire , and in RA's case of getting 8 pounds and holding on by a nose and being passed at or right after the wire. Watch some races, you will get the hang of it.
Leon More than 1 year ago
Bob Bright; You are 100% right. Ideally, a true HOTY should be able to win top races on any surface. A HOTY should not run over the same synth surfaces all year, in the same state, and 13 out of 14 times vs the same division. Moreover, she should not scratch if the track comes up sloppy. I could not agree with you more.
afleetalexforever More than 1 year ago
Bob bright please keep in mind that stating facts is important and stating your opinion means absolutely nothing. Let’s break down your statement about how Rachel destroyed fields of Merry go round horses, and that the horses beat similar caliber opponents. In the Martha Washington, FG Oaks, Fantasy, Ky Oaks, and Mother Goose Rachel beat 2 Grade 1 winners of 3 Grade 1 races and 7 horses that won 10 Graded Stakes event in 2009, in the Preakness, Haskell, and Woodward, she faced 8 Grade 1 winners and 7 of those won grade 1 races in 2009, these horses won 25 graded stakes races in 2009. So this shows her competition was consistently high quality all year long. From start to finish. Zenyatta on the other hand in her first 4 races faced 1 Graded stakes winner of 2 graded races, the Classic was full of graded stakes winners but the numbers just don’t stack up in any way shape form or fashion. So I wonder why you try to say that the competition was similar because it was not even close. That’s why one horse was tired and the other horse always showed up the freshest, because she didn’t run against anything all year long. But maybe Zenyatta fans see it differently. Maybe you see Hot n’ Dusty and modification as higher tier horses. Maybe just maybe you don’t understand what the level of competition means, out here in the East it means you can expect to run in to great horses every race and you might lose a race from time to time.
Curt A Vassallo More than 1 year ago
to:Bob Bright, Let me speak for Qev...He is not speaking out of context. He is merely putting into words, what U in fact have been twisting INTO context. U my fellow blogger, R quite a double talker. The horse racing world doesn't even consider PLASTIC, a surface of any kind.....
C More than 1 year ago
"A true HOTY candidate should be able to win on any surface" Really? Since when?