05/12/2015 10:22AM

Fornatale: Deciding the horseplayers' Eclipse Award

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One of the coolest things about the National Handicapping Championship is that because of its existence, for the first time ever, a horseplayer was acknowledged by the racing industry with an Eclipse Award. If you win the NHC, you join the likes of Paul Mellon, Bobby Frankel, Angel Cordero Jr., Secretariat, and Zenyatta as recipients of racing’s highest award.

It was Daily Racing Form chairman and publisher Steven Crist who came up with this idea. As he was quoted in Noel Michaels’s “Handicapping Contest Handbook” regarding a conversation he had with then-NTRA commissioner Tim Smith: “He asked me for suggestions on the Eclipse Awards dinner, and I said, ‘How about honoring an actual horseplayer?’ To me, that’s the greatest thing about the NHC. Whoever wins it gets a trophy at the Eclipse Awards, and the industry will be saying something it needs to say more often: ‘You, the fan, are as important to this business as the owner, the breeder, the trainer, and the jockey.’ ”

In the last couple of years, a debate has risen among contest players, with many espousing the view that there might be a better way to award the horseplayer’s Eclipse Award than simply giving it to the player who wins the NHC.

“The fact that there is an Eclipse Award for one of us is outstanding,” former NHC Tour winner Brent Sumja said, “but the horse that wins the Breeders’ Cup doesn’t automatically get an Eclipse Award, and I don’t think that’s the way our Eclipse should be awarded either.”

Many players have suggested that the NHC Tour winner should receive the Eclipse Award. After all, winning the tour is yearlong test of one’s ability. But current NHC Tour leader Ryan Flanders doesn’t agree.

“I’ve heard people say that the NHC Tour champion should be crowned with the title Handicapper of the Year,” Flanders said. “But the NHC Tour is about frequency.  It’s about playing max entries at most tournaments and having the money, time, and means to do so. Horse racing has always been the sport of kings that was driven by the little guy. And that is the draw to the NHC finals.”

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Flanders likes that the little guy has a chance at the NHC finals. He can qualify for free in some cases and go on to be the Handicapper of the Year. There is something that’s a lot more egalitarian about that as opposed to the tour and its associated costs.

Sumja agreed that the award shouldn’t just go to the tour winner and said that while the NHC finals are important, there might be a better way, perhaps a series of contests revolving around the sport’s biggest days and including the tournaments with the biggest purses. “I’d like it to be like it is for horses,” Sumja said. “It’s not based on one race, it’s based on a body of work. The NHC should count for a lot, but not the whole thing. If it does, then they should call it ‘Handicapper of the Weekend,’ not ‘Handicapper of the Year.’ ”

He also said he doesn’t think he should have gotten the Eclipse when he won the tour because he did poorly at the NHC.

For my part, I don’t believe it’s practical or necessary to change the current system. As illustrated by the story above, the Eclipse Award was baked into the very raison d’etre behind the NHC itself.

It’s also important to note that while an immense amount of luck is involved any time you’re talking about a 500-player tournament with one winner, the NHC champ can’t just be some player having a lucky day and walking away with the big prize. First, you have to qualify just to get to the NHC finals, and even then, the tournament is a three-day marathon.

While it’s certainly possible that an average player could get lucky a few times and win, I remain unconcerned. The title Handicapper of the Year isn’t meant to be taken literarily. The Horse of the Year is meant to be the best horse, but in my view, Handicapper of the Year is meant to be an honorary title in the true sense.

Think back to how Crist conceived the idea in the first place: rewarding the best horseplayer wasn’t the idea, honoring all horseplayers was. “It's a symbolic gesture,” Crist said, “and will always make the NHC the premier contest because no amount of money can buy an Eclipse Award.”

The men and women who stand on that stage at the Eclipse Awards are not up there to trumpet how wonderful they are but to represent all of us. Perhaps my feelings are in part a result of what great ambassadors for horseplayers most all of the NHC winners have been, but my inclination here is to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”