12/07/2014 12:03PM

Watchmaker: Sure things and tough calls for Eclipse Awards


This year’s 10 equine Eclipse Award divisions on the flat, as always, can be carved up into three categories: the slam dunks, the divisions you have to think about for more than five seconds but don’t really agonize over, and the tough calls. With the understanding that there are still four more Grade 1 events to be run before the end of the calendar year (the Starlet, Los Alamitos Futurity, Le Brea, and Malibu), it now seems safe to assign 2014’s flat equine divisions into our three categories.

Here’s how I see it:

The slam dunks

Three-year-old filly, Untapable – She should be a unanimous choice. Untapable won all six of her starts against females, four of them Grade 1 races, including arguably the most important event in her division, the Kentucky Oaks, and the most important race for fillies and mares, the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

Turf male, Main Sequence – There might be some sentimental support for Wise Dan, who did win all four of his starts and who was forced to pass the Breeders’ Cup only because of injury. But really, this is no contest. Main Sequence won all four of his starts, all Grade 1s, and the races he won have the ring of champions: the United Nations, Sword Dancer, Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, and Breeders’ Cup Turf.

Turf female, Dayatthespa – This was not a great year for female turf performers, which is why Dayatthespa’s Grade 1 victories in the First Lady and Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf (notably at distances of eight and 10 furlongs) tower over her division.

Female sprinter, Judy the Beauty – It is possible that a 3-year-old filly out there might pick up a second Grade 1 victory on the year in the seven-furlong La Brea opening day at Santa Anita. But even if one does, it won’t come close to equaling Judy the Beauty’s Grade 1 double of the Madison and the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, a race that is virtually an automatic champion maker, anyway.

The ones you have to think about, just a bit

Two-year-old male, American Pharoah – Yes, Texas Red clobbered his field in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and that could and should count for something. But as much as he broke through in the Breeders’ Cup, Texas Red also flattered American Pharoah, who absolutely walloped Texas Red in the FrontRunner and was denied his chance in the Juvenile only by injury. And don’t forget, American Pharoah also has two Grade 1 scores; he won the Del Mar Futurity before the FrontRunner. None of American Pharoah’s contemporaries will be able to surpass that.

Two-year-old filly, Take Charge Brandi – I firmly believe that Lady Eli, a most impressive winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, is a better horse than Take Charge Brandi. But the Eclipse Awards are about more than that. Take Charge Brandi won what is by far her division’s most important race when she prevailed in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. She was 61-1, and her score was a complete surprise. If Take Charge Brandi did nothing after winning the Juvenile Fillies, then there would be no problem voting for Lady Eli. But when Take Charge Brandi came back and won the Delta Downs Princess, she proved her Breeders’ Cup shocker was not a total fluke. It really doesn’t matter what she does in Saturday’s Starlet. When Take Charge Brandi won the Princess, it validated her win in the division’s most important race and put her over the top.

Older male, Main Sequence – I’m not thrilled about voting for a surface specialist in a division that has traditionally been the property of main-track horses, especially when there is a turf Eclipse Award for a horse like Main Sequence. But the weakness of the older male division leaves me no choice. The only main track older male to win more than one Grade 1 race was Private Zone, and his decision in the Vosburgh was going only six furlongs, and his win in the Cigar Mile was assisted by an enormous inside speed bias. Main Sequence’s four Grade 1 victories and, importantly, the races they came in compel me to overlook his surface specialty.

Older female, Close Hatches – A late-season collapse that saw her finish with dismal efforts in the Spinster and Breeders’ Cup Distaff leaves a bad taste. But you have to swallow hard, overlook those outings, and go back to Close Hatches’ midseason form. Her consecutive Grade 1 wins in the Apple Blossom, Ogden Phipps, and Personal Ensign still were clearly better than anything her contemporaries were able to manage. Body of work can be just as important as how you finish.

The tough calls

Male sprinter, Palace – I think you could make cases for four horses here: Private Zone, Goldencents, Work All Week, and Palace. But I would have a problem voting for Private Zone and Goldencents, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, because one-mile races, even one-turn-mile events like Private Zone’s Cigar Mile, simply are not sprint races. They aren’t. Work All Week probably is the favorite to win this divisional Eclipse Award off his win in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, a race in which Palace finished sixth. However, that was Work All Week’s first and only Grade 1 win and only his second graded win of the year along with his Grade 3 Phoenix. Palace won the Grade 1 Forego, the Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt, and the Grade 2 True North. I understand the importance of the Breeders’ Cup, and the weight Eclipse Award voters attach to it. But I feel Palace’s overall campaign, despite his loss in the Sprint, was better than Work All Week’s.

Three-year-old male, California Chrome – Bayern won the big one, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and he also won 2 of 3 head-to-head meetings against California Chrome this year. But these things didn’t happen in a vacuum, especially the Breeders’ Cup. Bayern won the Classic by inches after a perfect uncontested pace trip gained when, as a result of taking a left turn out of the gate, he wiped out Moreno, the one who was going to keep Bayern honest early. That doesn’t even address what Bayern did to Shared Belief, but that is extraneous in this case.

The point is: It is far from a stretch to say that given how narrowly he won the Classic after a perfect trip, the outcome would have been very different had Bayern not done what he did out of the gate. In other words, the result of the Classic was inconclusive (and I’m not even addressing how Bayern’s wins in the Pennsylvania Derby and Haskell were bias aided, and inconclusive). If the Classic were a truly run race with a conclusive result and Bayern won, then it would be easier for me to vote for him, although I still don’t think I would. But it was not.

Why would I not vote for Bayern, who I’m on record as liking from early on, even if his Classic were a conclusive race? Overall record. I thought from Breeders’ Cup Saturday night (and wrote so at the time) that California Chrome’s overall record this year was a little better than Bayern’s. And California Chrome only enhanced his record with his subsequent win in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby, on turf, no less. To me, four Grade 1 wins in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Santa Anita Derby, and Hollywood Derby, a Grade 2 win in the San Felipe, and a narrowly beaten third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic is better than two Grade 1 wins in the Classic and Haskell, Grade 2 wins in the Pennsylvania Derby and Woody Stephens, a disqualification to second in the Grade 3 Derby Trial, and a third in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby.

But this is indeed a tough call, one with bigger implications than only the divisional Eclipse Award. As contested as this division might be, this year’s 3-year-old champion also probably will be Horse of the Year. That’s how I’m voting, anyway.