01/05/2012 3:40PM

Confessions of a burned-out Eclipse voter

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DRF Weekend - Eclipse Award finalistsIf there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s not to discuss politics, religion, and Eclipse Award ballots.

If there’s one thing I need to learn, it’s that it’s sometimes okay to say “no.”

So, when I was asked to contribute my personal Eclipse ballot for 2011, I was at a crossroads.

Thinking back on past Eclipse discussions, I remember being vilified in the blogosphere after proclaiming my vote for Bernardini over Barbaro as champion 3-year-old of 2006.

Two years later, eyebrows were raised again when I selected Zenyatta over Curlin as 2008 Horse of the Year.

I actually received death threats when I announced that I was voting for Rachel Alexandra over Zenyatta as "mostest" horse of 2009.

Last year, I kept quiet.

Last year was a good year.

But most worm cans must be opened, so let’s try breaking down the 2011 candidates. There are no set criteria for Eclipse balloting other than common sense. Each voter has his or her own personal preferences. I look for overall accomplishment, head-to-head racing record, and quality of competition.

This past racing season may not have showcased the star power of years past, but many of the divisions are wide open – so much so that one of my top choices did not even make the final ballot. [MORE: 2011 Eclipse Awards finalists]

Steeplechase

The race for champion jumper looks to come down to a photo finish between Black Jack Blues and Tax Ruling.

The wildly inconsistent Tax Ruling will likely receive many votes for his two Grade 1 victories over the jumps (Iroquois, Colonial Cup), but he was beaten more than 45 lengths in his seasonal debut in the Grade 3 Carolina Cup and was pulled up in the Grade 1 Grand National.

My selection, Black Jack Blues, only has a single Grade 1 win on his card, but that was the Grand National, a race in which he ran Tax Ruling into the ground early and kept on going to win by an easy seven lengths. Unchallenged in two starts since being imported from Europe, Black Jack Blues showed brilliance and class in both of those races. Either one of the two top contenders would make a worthy Eclipse winner, but my vote goes to Black Jack Blues.

Selection: Black Jack Blues

2-year-old male

Going into the Breeders’ Cup, the top two juveniles were arguably Union Rags, winner of the Saratoga Special and Champagne, and Creative Cause, who took of the Best Pal and Norfolk. Both had their chance to lock down divisional honors in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and both were shown up by undefeated Hansen, who has yet to be headed in three lifetime starts. Union Rags ran a game second in the Juvenile, but it was Hansen who stole the show, and likely the Eclipse, with his gutsy gate-to-wire performance. A runaway winner of his first two starts, Hansen had to dig down and fight in the Juvenile. Hansen won when it counted the most and beat the horses he had to beat.

Selection: Hansen

2-year-old filly

I won’t waste much space on this award as there should be an investigation if My Miss Aurelia doesn’t win unanimously. The Smart Strike filly won all four of her races, including the Grade 1 Frizette and Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, scored at distances ranging from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/16 miles, and was simply in a different league than her peers.

Selection: My Miss Aurelia

3-year-old male

Usually, this award goes to a 3-year-old who prevailed in one of the three Triple Crown races but, in 2011 those horses were plagued by inactivity and inconsistency. Animal Kingdom won the race they all want, the Kentucky Derby, and he was a game second in the Preakness before suffering through a terrible trip in the Belmont. Unfortunately, he was injured and his season ended in mid-June. Shackleford grabbed the Preakness and Ruler On Ice shocked in the Belmont, but this game is about winning, and Shackleford and Ruler On Ice went a combined 2 for 18 (both wins in entry-level allowances) outside of their scores in the Triple Crown series.

In my opinion, the best 3-year-old of 2011 was Caleb’s Posse, who won half of his 10 starts, defeated older horses, as well as Shackleford, in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, took down Uncle Mo in the Grade 1 King’s Bishop, the flagship race for 3-year-old sprinters, and won stakes at distances ranging from 6 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/16 miles. Caleb’s Posse had his hiccups, to be sure, but so did all of the other logical contenders. With five stakes victories on his card, four in graded company and two at the Grade 1 level, Caleb’s Posse gets my vote as leading 3-year-old male.

Selection: Caleb’s Posse

3-year-old filly

As with the juvenile filly division, this one should be a no-brainer. Royal Delta beat all of the major contenders in the Grade 1 Alabama at Saratoga and finished off her season with a sparkling triumph against older females in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic. Add in a win in the Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan over subsequent Grade 1 Mother Goose heroine Buster’s Ready, and Royal Delta should win this hands-down.

Selection: Royal Delta

Older male

This is where the fur will begin to fly. For the most part, the handicap division was hampered by injuries and upset wins in major races by horses like Drosselmeyer (Breeders’ Cup Classic), Giant Oak (Donn Handicap), and Pool Play (Stephen Foster Handicap).

Tizway won two of the most important prizes in the Metropolitan Mile and Whitney Handicap, but he raced only four times due to lingering physical issues. Game On Dude would be a most deserving choice as he took two major Grade 1 races in Southern California and was dead-game in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but he lost more than he won.

I believe that one older male was truly brilliant and dependable. A Grade 1 winner on turf and on the main track, Acclamation won five straight graded stakes from May through October and scored at distances ranging from nine to 12 furlongs. While it could be argued that he wasn’t beating up on the best competition around, he did defeat Game On Dude and the talented Twirling Candy on the square in the Pacific Classic and he humbled the good turf runners Jeranimo, Caracortado, Bourbon Bay, and Champ Pegasus. I don’t expect Acclamation to actually win the hardware, but he was consistently good in a year where consistency was sorely lacking.

Selection: Acclamation

Older female

There isn’t much to say. To many, Havre de Grace should be Horse of the Year as well as champion filly or mare. Her only losses this year came against champion Blind Luck (by a nose) and to males in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and she defeated the boys as the favorite in the prestigious Grade 1 Woodward.

Selection: Havre de Grace

Male sprinter

Amazombie didn’t finish off the board all year. He was good in the winter, winning the Sunshine Millions Sprint. He was good in the spring, taking down the Grade 2 Potrero Grande Handicap and Tiznow Stakes. And, he was very good in the fall, winning the Grade 1 Ancient Title Stakes before getting up to score in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. An underrated performer, Amazombie ran hard all season and is a very deserving sprint champion.

Selection: Amazombie

Female sprinter

I lost sleep debating whether to vote for Hilda’s Passion, a four-time graded-stakes winner who was certainly the fastest performer on the Beyer Speed Figures, or Musical Romance, who won only two graded races, but one of them was the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. It came down to a game-time decision, and I voted for the latter, although I certainly see Hilda’s Passion’s obvious merits.

If you throw out Musical Romance’s turf and route races, she compiled a record of 8-5-2-0, and her largest margin of defeat was three-quarters of a length. Also, her Breeders’ Cup win came at the expense of 2011 Grade 1 winners Her Smile, Switch, and Turbulent Descent, and Grade 2 winners Great Hot, Irish Gypsy, Pomeroys Pistol, and Tar Heel Mom.

While a brilliant winner over Tar Heel Mom in the Grade 1 Ballerina at Saratoga, Hilda’s Passion made her money beating up on Tamarind Hall (lost to her once), Curlina, Tidal Pool, Amen Hallelujah, Stephanie Got Even, Ms. Vanenzza, and North Rodeo. That’s hardly a murderer’s row of filly sprinters.

Selection: Musical Romance

Turf male

For me, it came down to my "crush" horse, Acclamation, and European import Cape Blanco, who shipped in to sweep the Man o’ War, Arlington Million, and Turf Classic Invitational, all highly coveted Grade 1 races on the grass. Cape Blanco nips Acclamation in Grade 1 turf victories by a 3-2 margin, but Acclamation also won the Grade 2 Jim Murray Handicap by seven lengths and the Grade 2 Clement L. Hirsch. From an accomplishment standpoint, it’s close.

Cape Blanco did defeat multiple champion Gio Ponti twice, but aside from that runner, a veteran who arguably lost a step in 2011, Cape Blanco didn’t exactly mash any killers. I have no argument with anyone who voted for Cape Blanco. Heck, if I voted on a different day, I may have gone for him as well. But, it’s Acclamation by a lip.

Selection: Acclamation

Turf female

This was a strange division. Stacelita could easily win as she took down the Beverly D. and Flower Bowl Invitational after finishing third against males in the United Nations, but she bombed badly as the favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf. Winter Memories was arguably the most brilliant, but she was beaten in her season finale in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup at Keeneland and never faced her elders. Dubawi Heights had a very good year and would be a deserving winner of this award, but she, too, faltered in the Breeders’ Cup. The Breeders’ Cup winner, Perfect Shirl, was a 27-1 outsider that didn’t win another race all season.

As for consistency, thy name was Never Retreat. Although the 6-year-old mare won only a single Grade 1, the First Lady at Keeneland, she also racked up three Grade 2 scores and one Grade 3 triumph while racing year-round, and she beat Perfect Shirl in the Canadian Stakes at Woodbine.

Selection: Never Retreat

Trainer

Cases could certainly be made for Bill Mott for his Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic–Breeders’ Cup Classic double, Bob Baffert for his many Grade 1 successes, and Steve Asmussen for his gaudy win total, but it’s hard to deny Todd Pletcher another trophy. Pletcher won the earnings title, finished third in wins, and won 43 graded stakes.

Selection: Todd Pletcher

Jockey

Let’s go back-to-back with Ramon Dominguez, who led the nation in earnings, finished second in wins, and booted home 27 graded stakes winners, including Hansen in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Havre de Grace in the Woodward. John Velazquez deserves great consideration for another excellent season as well, and Javier Castellano had a fine year.

Selection: Ramon Dominguez

Apprentice jockey

Ryan Curatolo cut his teeth on the tough Gulfstream and NYRA circuits, but Rosario Montanez led all apprentices in wins and earnings.

Selection: Rosario Montanez

Owner

Day in and day out, Midwest Thoroughbreds sent out live horses. The outfit easily led the nation in wins and finished second to the powerful Godolphin operation in earnings.

Selection: Midwest Thoroughbreds

Breeder

It was another dominant year for Frank Stronach’s Adena Springs, the leader in starters, wins, earnings, and graded stakes wins.

Selection: Adena Springs

Horse of the Year

We could go so many ways. Havre de Grace was the dominant older female and defeated the boys in the Woodward; Game On Dude won the Goodwood and the Big Cap and came to play in the Breeders’ Cup Classic; Tizway won two of the most historically important races for older handicappers; Cape Blanco was untouchable on turf; Hansen and My Miss Aurelia ran the table for juvenile performers; Royal Delta claimed some major scalps. They all deserve a piece of the pie, but I’ll stick with Acclamation.

Like Havre de Grace, he won five graded stakes in 2011, including three Grade 1 events. He won on turf and he won on the main track. When some of the big names didn’t win out in the Breeders’ Cup, it left the door open for him. And this racing fan believes that he kicked it down with his midseason form. I won’t be surprised if he doesn’t win even one Eclipse, let alone the three that I handed him. He may not even be named champion California-bred with Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Amazombie also on that ballot. That’s what kind of year it was in 2011. Acclamation was a consistent winner of top-level open races in a year of inconsistent performers. Shouldn’t that count for something? While I’m sure my selections will spark the usual debate and name-calling ("dolt" is usually the most prevalent), at least you can’t say that I’m cursed with the dreaded "East Coast bias."

Selection: Acclamation