12/28/2009 2:21PM

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.