11/14/2011 12:51PM

Game On Dude, Caleb's Posse, and Divisional Titles


It’s heartening to see that this year’s Eclipse Award discussion won’t be as rancorous as it was the last two years. That, however, doesn’t mean the run up to this year’s Eclipse Award vote won’t include some passionate debate, specifically concerning the two most wide open divisions: Older male, and 3-year-old male.

It should be said right off the bat that there is no completely satisfying championship candidate in either of these divisions. That’s why there will be so much debate. But it isn’t hard to see which way the wind is blowing. It’s obvious there is a lot of support for Game On Dude for champion older male, and Caleb’s Posse for top 3-year-old male. And I’m not on board with either of them.

Game On Dude has won three races this year – an optional claimer/allowance on January off a long layoff, the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap in March, and the Grade 1 Goodwood in October. In the Goodwood, Game On Dude prevailed by a half length over Awesome Gem, an admirable veteran who at age 8 is now a Grade 3 performer. As for the Santa Anita Handicap, Game On Dude nosed Setsuko, whose only career victory remains his maiden win. Moreover, it remains a mystery how Game On Dude managed to stay up in the Big Cap. He really should have been disqualified for stretch interference.

But what really doesn’t sit right with me regarding Game On Dude is the thing that seems to put him over the top in the minds of his Eclipse Award backers: his second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Look, Game On Dude ran a terrific race in the Classic, disputing a solid pace and holding off everyone but Drosselmeyer.

But he lost.

I was completely against Gio Ponti getting the older male championship in 2009 – let’s be real, Gio Ponti, who that year won four Grade 1’s on turf and never won a race of any sort on any other surface, got that title because of his second to Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic – and I’m against Game On Dude for similar reasons. I think it is wrong to reward a horse with something as lofty as a championship on the basis of a loss.

Let’s address the candidacy of Acclamation, who won one more Grade 1 race this year than Game On Dude, and who beat Game On Dude back to fourth when they met for the only time in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic. That Acclamation won on turf and synthetic this year, but not dirt, is not really that big of an issue with me, because he did at least win a major main track event. What I do have a problem with is Acclamation’s other two Grade 1 victories came in the Charlie Whittingham and Eddie Read, which were comparatively weak races that fall far short of championship caliber.

For the record, my preference for champion older male right now is Tizway, winner of the Grade 1 Whitney and Grade 1 Met Mile. I know, Tizway did not race past early August; like I said, there are no perfect championship candidates here. But the win combination of the Whitney and Met Mile for me surpasses the win combination of the Big Cap and Goodwood. And at least in the Whitney, Tizway walloped Flat Out, who was coming off a huge win in the Grade 2 Suburban, and who later won the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup.

I am less opposed to Caleb’s Posse in the 3-year-old male division than Game On Dude in the older male division. At least Caleb’s Posse was the only prominent member of his group this year to collect even only two Grade 1 victories, winning the King’s Bishop and the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. And in the Dirt Mile, four of the eight opponents Caleb’s Posse defeated were older horses.

But in the way I view the older male division as a main track division – there is, after all, a separate older turf male Eclipse Award – I view the 3yo male division as one that requires achievement in distance races, for that has always been the historical standard. There is, after all, a separate category for, say, male sprinters. And when it comes to meaningful accomplishment at a distance, Caleb’s Posse just does not measure up. While he did win the Grade 3 Ohio Derby and the ungraded Smarty Jones Stakes this year around two turns, they were both very weak races.

I concede that it is surprising, because he was ripe for a takedown over five months ago when his season ended, but I lean toward Animal Kingdom in this division.

Animal Kingdom’s victory in the Kentucky Derby, if an upset, was also thoroughly decisive, as was his prior win in the Spiral. He followed with a near miss in the Preakness, and a sixth in the Belmont Stakes, in which he suffered a ridiculously awful trip, and a season-ending injury. Shackleford and Ruler On Ice, the upset winners of the Preakness and Belmont in performances that weren’t nearly as decisive as Animal Kingdom’s Derby, never won again. Stay Thirsty and Coil, who emerged over the summer, proved unable to sustain their runs. And Uncle Mo couldn’t follow through with his late-season Hail Mary.

In the end, the Kentucky Derby, always the biggest 3-year-old race of the year, for me this year proved to be the definitive race in the 3yo male division.