11/14/2011 12:51PM

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

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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.

jaosu24 More than 1 year ago
Caleb for 3yo champ. He has the most impressive graded stakes resume. His slip-ups early in the year had to do with the distances and, more importantly, he didnt have the right jockey. When Rajiv rides him he is unbeatable at a mile (and i tend to believe longer if they tried) and under. One race should not win you HOY it should be a body of work. If Caleb doesnt win, then I think Shakleford should win it before AK.
gene22 More than 1 year ago
Caleb's Posse had a very good year and a few terrific races. I can't see him as the top 3 year old when he did not even contest the top races for 3 year olds. He was wisely placed in the Kings Bishop rather than trying the Travers. A win in the Classic against older horses might have given some weight to the case. Again, he was wisely placed in the Mile, and ran a great race. I just can't see rewarding him as an afterthought because the division did not provide a clear-cut leader. Top 3 year old was a contest that Caleb's Posse was never really in, so how could he win it?
Swaps More than 1 year ago
Really great comments here. It only further proves that season honors are going to be tougher and tougher to gain concensus because the modern Thoroughbred races so few times. Secretariat ran 11 times at 2 and 10 times at 3, or the other way around, and his losses were of no account because his wins were so numerous and impressive. Swaps ran six times at four just at Hollywood Park, where his lone loss to Porterhouse, was easily forgiven in light of the numerous records he set, plus winning a major handicap in the Midwest and a handicap in Florida early in the year. And he did this on a bad leg. Though Tizway seemed the better horse *And Tiznow is one of my all time faves), Game on Dude ran far more times and we need to stop rewarding the stage management of horses that dicates very few starts so as to assure very few defeats to tarnish stud value, the all important driving force. The argument that Blind Luck is better than Havre de Grace seems compelling; and since breeders and owners no longer cherish the tough, durable distance horse then why not give the three year old championship to Caleb's Posse, a miler, and acknoweldge that some day the Derby wll be shorted to a mile and a sixteenth, with the Preakness at a mile and the Belmont a mile and three-sixteenths - to accomodated the deterioration caused by increasing concentrationn of the gene pool. Too many rich races that allow the top echelon to avoid one another, unsoundness, too cautious stage management, much larger foal crops than the small ones that produced standouts like Man o'War and Citation, how will it become easier in future years? If a horse can win the Derby and Preakness before breaking down, that will be the slam dunk of the future in the three year old division.
Johnny Bwell More than 1 year ago
If Ruler on Ice wins the Clark he should be 3yo Champ. The current front runner for 3yo champ is Caleb's Posse. Hey Captain, In response to: "Just like turf races are inferior to main track races." Ugh, FYI, the best horses in the world run on turf!
sue hooper More than 1 year ago
I agree with all of the bloggers who are giving credit for second place efforts. I realize some of the commentators have said that a second means a horse was beat and therefore didn't beat anybody but I thoroughly disagree with that sort of thinking. A second means a horse outran a lot of others and picked up a nice paycheck. Yes, they DO pay for second! If it pays, it should count. And whoever said that the E awards should be determined by this year's earnings...I think that is a good idea. Nothing like earnings to help sort things out.
chuck More than 1 year ago
I think there have been so many good arguments from a number of people as to who should be the " Champ" in each division. The three year olds were evenly matched and none really stood out. Animal Kingdom did win the Spiral and arguably the premier three year old race....the Kentucky Derby.Subsequently he ran second on the Preakness. Two quality races. No three year old did better. Certainly not a stellar season, but no three year old had one.Caleb's Posse, although having a successful season did not prove his class over a classic distance. His best races were around one turn...................elongated sprints. The older handicap division certainly lacks any difinitive choice. They are basically good hard trying horses, but do not conjure up any idea that they are the second coming of any handicap horse winner in recent memory. Flip a coin and you can have your choice. I do feel that HAVRE De GRACE.............( many people pronounce her name HAVRE DE GRAA) deserves the award. Again, not a sterling season, but more wins than defeats and enough grade I victories. Nobody really caught the public's attention.
hialeah More than 1 year ago
Hi Mike, I think it is safe to say that this is an unusual year for HOY voting, as well as the aforementioned divisions, and not for the best of reasons. When dealing with Tizway, I thought his Met Mile and Whitney scores were two of the most impressive races of the year. But with just 4 starts in 5 months (4sts 2 0 2 – 2 G-1s), I believe his year was just too short for HOY, but not for older male. Game on Dude ran a full campaign (8 st 3 3 12 G-1s), but my everlasting thought of him resides in watching the Big Cap replay and feeling that at the Top o the Stretch it resembled a Bumper Car race. So his biggest win should have been a DQ at worst and has an asterisk at best and I can’t get around that. So I would offer for HOY 2011: the 2yo filly My Miss Aurelia (4sts 4 00- 2 G-1s - restricted) who with an unblemished record did all she could do. And yet it was a short 4 month run so… It leaves the leader going into the BC Classic, Havre de Grace. HDG (7 sts 5 1 0 – 3 G-1’s – 2 restricted) did not always win but she ran a full campaign and always gave a good account of herself - even when twice taking on the boys. That she ran her poorest in the biggest race of the year is why this subject is so open for debate. But there is clearly no “cut and dry” winner for HOY, and for this reason it should go to the horse with the “best season”. This horse would be the 4 yo filly Havre de Grace. As for 3yo male – the Kentucky Derby trumps a boat-load of one turn races no matter how big. Animal Kingdom in a very strange year. Thanks.
Captain Bodgit More than 1 year ago
Caleb's Posse winning all those 1-turn races only points to the fact that 1-turn races are inferior to 2-turn races. Just like turf races are inferior to main track races. All grade 1's are not created equal. You all want to give 3yo champ to a horse that got dusted in Derby preps at Oaklawn in the Spring and couldn't even make the Derby (alhough he tried) and finished 3rd in the Indiana Derby? Really? Really?!? Animal Kingdom is 3yo champ hands down. Havre de Grace was HOY before the Breeders Cup and she shouldn't be punished for taking a shot in the Classic. Her getting skrewed out of HOY because she ran in the Classic would only lead to more trainers ducking other horses and not going for 'the gusto'. We don't want that do we?
Rolando More than 1 year ago
Caleb's Posse destroyed shackelford who beat Animal Kingdom. He was the most impressive winner in this years breeders cup. It doesn't matter what distance. That day he would of beaten any horse. He is the best 3 year old.
benjamin Ricciardi More than 1 year ago
Captain Bodgit..... If you give the 3 yr old champ to AK off of his win in the Ky. Derby you minimize the rest of the racing calendar, reward a light campaign, and overemphasize the importance of a crapshoot. I will attempt to elaborate on these individually. Blame won the big race last year and lost HOY to the horse he beat because he didn't have as flashy a Stakes record. So if winning the big race and beating your competition head to head was not a deciding factor last year, then why would AK winning the derby and Caleb's Posse losing to some of those AK beat be a bigger deal this year? It was not his preferred distance, but he should be given a pass like you gave Havre De Grace for "going with the gusto". Although less frequent recently, horses have won titles with a few blemishes on their records. The important thing to consider is when looking at the last year of races, what is their resume. I agree that all g1's aren't equal, but they also are not won by low level claiming horse types, so don't knock the talent of any g1 winner. Caleb's posse has beaten older horses, which AK never did this year, he has multiple g1's as well as other graded wins and placings and a non graded stakes win to start his season. Your right that neither the King's Bishop or BC Dirt Mile has the same wow factor as the Ky. Derby, but neither is a $35K claiming opener with a 25K purse as you would have people believe. Rewarding a horse who won a big race with a light campaign sets a bad precedent. It will lead to your ducking horses concerns stated above. If my horse wins the Derby after taking any of the random prep races and can clinch a title off that, then why would I even bring him back to race in the summer? The third point is that the best horse rarely wins the Ky. Derby. Horses winning triple crown races recently haven't exactly knocked it out the park either. Summer Bird and Looking at Lucky both didn't run their best in the Ky. Derby, but had much better 3 yr old seasons then AK did. But sarava, mine that bird, ruler on ice are all examples of horses who didn't figure coming in and never should have figured again coming out. Zenyatta lost HOY to Rachel because Rachel had an admirable season that will be special twenty years from now in retrospect. Winning 4 graded races and placing in a few others with a stakes win added in is special. He raced at 5 different tracks, at 5 different distances, challenging and beating older horses along the way. He beat the 2 yr old champion at that champion's preferred distance which is even more impressive given that horse was considered the best at that trip. He also beat Shackleford at his best distance which is a horse who beat AK despite the conditions favoring AK over him. Ak ran a few good races, but ultimately a vote for him is a vote against the totality of a racing season. The casual fan votes AK because the only watch racing when it's on NBC. The true horseplayer has more respect for someone with a full dance card and the hardware to prove his true grit. We all have opinions, but as for your AK 3 yr old champ hands down prediction, I can only go so far as to give it a thumbs down, because I need the other four fingers to count the number of Caleb's Posse's graded vistories this year (double that of AK).
The Mule More than 1 year ago
I agree that Shackleford deserves a lot of credit. In a crazy year of inconsistencies, he was the one horse who showed up and put in a solid effort in every race. Perhaps when he matures he will settle in and find his niche. I hope that after a long period of rest he can do some great things in his 4yo campaign.
lapiston More than 1 year ago
Game on Dude had the best form for the classic distance all year on dirt. He is a genuine 11/4 horse, blessed with speed AND stamina as the eastern speed, Uncle Mo and Honor and Serve found out. Tizway would have undoubtedly met the same fate ( and folded) had he faced Game on Dude in the classic. It is great to see an American bred horse who actually gets the classic distance on dirt. Racing seems to be ready to glorify milers for some reason. Baffert had backed off a bit on Game on Dude around the time of the Del Mar race over a polytrack that, to be political, is not the best around. The horse's goal by that time was the Classic. That Del Mar loss was totally predictable. Game on Dude's slow time in the Classic (the track was very, very slow) should be juxtaposed with his fast race in the Goodwood. Watching him live, his action was simply superb and he posted fast internal fractions in the Goodwood and incredibly stuck around. The 2010 Belmont has now produced First Dude (Hollywood Gold Cup), Drosselmeyer (Classic) and Game on Dude (Big Cap). That is pure class unless we are to think that the entire slate of distance races this year were bogus. Talk about a key race...