12/18/2013 2:53AM

Point Taken


There are lots of reasons to vote for Eclipse Awards. Some of them even make sense.

You get to shape history. Yes, you do. Those who voted, say, for Charismatic or Point Given as Horse of the Year can say they helped pick a 3-year-old for the ultimate honor who had neither won the Triple Crown nor defeated older horses. Meet the new bar…lower than the old bar. Those who voted for New York’s Groovy as champion sprinter in 1987 probably figured heck, even Kelso couldn’t win in California, although somehow California’s Very Subtle, who beat Groovy in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, could win in New York. Those who voted for 2-year-old Favorite Trick as Horse of the Year for 1997 instead of Formal Gold, Skip Away or Gentlemen – well, the less said the better.

You get to nourish personal prejudices. Feels good, too. There are those who will never vote for a female as Horse of the Year unless she wins a big one against the boys. There are others who insist that somewhere in the spelling of “Older Male” is hidden the word “dirt,” and that’s okay, as long as they also find “lard” and “dollar.” There are also those who recuse themselves from voting on a steeplechase champion for the simple reason they wouldn’t recognize a steeplechase horse in a crowd, and reading Sean Clancy doesn’t count.

Every once in awhile, an Eclipse voter gets to ride a white horse into battle and go forth in a noble quest, or at least it seems that way at the time. In such a spirit this writer is saddling up to make the case for Points Offthebench as North America’s champion male sprinter of 2013.

For purposes of 2013, Points Offthebench was 4-year-old son of Benchmark (by Alydar) out of a Free House mare bred in California by Gary Rocks and owned by Don Crevier and Charles Martin. The Creviers sell cars, lots of cars.

Their horse raced twice in 2012 and broke his maiden, but nothing more. He started sensibly in ’13 with three allowance races, two of them wins. Then, bang bang, Points Offthebench won the Grade 1 Bing Crosby at Del Mar and the Grade 1 Santa Anita Sprint Championship.

We’ll pause there to note that no other horse, male or female, won as many as two Grade 1 sprints in 2013. In fact, there were only two other males besides Points Offthebench who won more than a single main track Grade 1 race open to all comers during the year – Game On Dude (3) and Mucho Macho Man (2). Those of you who swear by the Graded Race System, and cite it often, may mark your ballots now.

Others will waffle. How about Sahara Sky? He won two Grade 2 sprints and the Met Mile, a prestigious race that has been used in the past to boost the cred of a versatile sprinter but which is still – and let’s check – one mile. Justin Phillip danced from January to November and was clearly the most durable of the top sprinters, while at the other end of the scale Secret Circle came to the party late, won an allowance race, then was narrowly best on the day in a raucous Breeders’ Cup Sprint, which you would think should be its own reward.

Points Offthebench did not make the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. The poor guy suffered fatal injuries in a workout one week before he would have been the race favorite. He was wearing his nifty Breeders’ Cup workout saddle towel at the time – No. 509 if you must know – which is not much of a souvenir. He deserves better, and he earned it.

For those who resist the sentimental component of voting for a horse who died in action, there is sufficient precedent. Ruffian was the first posthumous Eclipse Award winner, and we all knew where we were and who we were with that grim afternoon in July of 1975. Landaluce, the undefeated 2-year-old filly champion of 1982, died on Dec.11 of that year from the ravages of colitis-X. In 1984, Kentucky Derby winner Swale died from what appeared to be a heart attack outside Woody Stephens’ Belmont Park barn on an ordinary Sunday morning, eight days after winning the Belmont Stakes. He’d done enough to be 3-year-old champion, but he promised so much more.

Go for Wand died at Belmont Park in 1990 while trying to beat Bayakoa in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Naming her champion 3-year-old filly was the least voters could do. Three years later, in the 1993 Belmont Stakes, Preakness winner Prairie Bayou got as far as the backstretch before fatally shattering a leg. To that point the gelding had been the most consistent 3-year-old in the land and was appropriately honored at year’s end.

The most recent posthumous champion was Left Bank, voted top older male of 2002. He had won two good sprints – the Bold Ruler and Tom Fool – but it was his victory over Street Cry and Lido Palace in a giddy Whitney Handicap that put him at the top of the division. While training at Belmont for the subsequent Woodward Stakes, Left Bank suffered a recurrence of the colic that had required surgery when he was two. This time he didn’t make it. He died two months later in Kentucky.

If nothing else, an Eclipse Award for Points Offthebench would validate the approach taken by trainer Tim Yakteen. There were a lot of baby steps before they made the big jump, but boy was he ready, and the public agreed. Points Offthebench was 3-to-1 in the Bing Crosby, his stakes debut, against Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents and Malibu Stakes winner Jimmy Creed. Later, Goldencents romped in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.

By now Yakteen’s name is familiar, as a former top assistant to Bob Baffert, but Tim has been on his own long enough to deserve a decoupling. Points Offthebench was Yakteen’s first Grade 1 winner in a career that would seem to have nothing but upside. An Eclipse Award would be nice, but he’d trade it for the horse in a heartbeat.

“It’s hard to describe how confident I was in our horse going into the Sprint,” Yakteen said in the wake of the fatal injury. “He was doing so well that I actually started wondering if maybe we needed some little, insignificant thing to go wrong, just to shake off any complacency. I wasn’t going so far as to think he had to win. Too much can happen in a race like the Sprint. But I knew in my heart it would take an awfully big race to beat him.”

Anyone who watched him run would agree.

(note: Thanks to a correction from a reader, this article has been edited to add Landaluce to the list of posthumous Eclipe Award winners. -- JH)