11/01/2014 11:39PM

Watchmaker: Where the Eclipse Award races stand now


Obviously, the Breeders’ Cup has a profound effect on Eclipse Award voting. And unfortunately, that will include this year’s controversial and terribly unsatisfying Breeders’ Cup Classic. Keeping in mind that no one should make his Eclipse decisions just a couple of hours after the Breeders’ Cup is over, let’s take a look at how things appear to stand as of now in each Eclipse Award division.

2-year-old male – Texas Red galloped in the Juvenile, the race that is by far most the important in the division. But he romped over a field that was depleted by injury. And Texas Red’s win seemed to flatter American Pharoah, who walloped Texas Red in the FrontRunner and was one of those unable to run Saturday, as much as it advanced his own candidacy. American Pharoah has two Grade 1 victories, and it feels as though he’s still the leader in the clubhouse despite Texas Red’s score in the big one. But things could get much closer if Texas Red adds a big late-season stakes to his résumé.

2-year-old female – This has been a weak division all year, which means it’s the right time to break with the tradition of awarding this Eclipse Award to a dirt performer and give it to Lady Eli, the most impressive individual, even if the Juvenile Fillies Turf winner has yet to compete on dirt. Lady Eli was sensational in winning Friday. And Take Charge Brandi extending the reign of chaos among the dirt fillies with her implausible upset of the Juvenile Fillies only made Lady Eli’s candidacy more attractive. Things could tighten up if Take Charge Brandi somehow validates her Breeders’ Cup upset with a win in something like the Golden Rod on Thanksgiving weekend. But short of that, Lady Eli is the most talented 2-year-old filly seen this year, regardless of surface. By a long way.

3-year-old male – What a mess the Classic, and the inexplicable non-disqualification of Bayern, made of this division. If Bayern were taken down like he should have been, it wouldn’t have helped Shared Belief’s candidacy. With a Bayern disqualification, Shared Belief still would have been a loser in the Classic, even if he never had a fair chance to show what he could do. But a Bayern disqualification would have made California Chrome a much clearer choice for this title. Under the messy circumstances, I think California Chrome is the best choice for this Eclipse Award because I think his Grade 1 wins in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Santa Anita Derby are greater in total than Bayern’s Grade 1 wins in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (which might never have happened if Bayern didn’t also take out Moreno at the start) and Haskell. But of course, the real shame of it all is that Shared Belief, who ran great to finish fourth, didn’t have a fair shot to add to his Grade 1 résumé this year of the Awesome Again and Pacific Classic. And notably, both of those wins were over older horses.

3-year-old female – Untapable’s score over older opponents in the Distaff just put the exclamation point on a campaign during which she always seemed like the obvious divisional champion. This should be unanimous.

Older male – The older male division, which was so deep the first half of the year, just fell completely apart from the summer on. Palace Malice was arguably the best dirt male, but he didn’t win a race after the Met Mile, and all the major divisional races since were decided musical-chairs-style. Into this vacuum steps Main Sequence, the dominant turf male, with four Grade 1 victories this year from as many U.S. starts. The reluctance of the Eclipse Award electorate to vote for a turf specialist in this division went the way of the dodo thanks to Wise Dan and a few years of subpar handicap horses. It just feels right to look outside the “dirt first” box in this division once again.

Older female – There were indications that Close Hatches was in steep decline going into the Breeders’ Cup, and her last-place finish in the Distaff confirmed it. And that, combined with her empty fourth in the Spinster, means that Close Hatches closed her year in ugly fashion. Still, she deserves this divisional title on the basis of her overall body of work – three Grade 1 wins and the all-important score over Princess of Sylmar and Beholder (even if Beholder wasn’t at her best) in the Ogden Phipps.

Turf male – This one is a no-brainer. With four Grade 1 victories this year from as many U.S. starts, Main Sequence being the champ is as certain as the sun rising in the east tomorrow.

Turf female – In a division where no one put forward a really compelling championship case, the 1 1/4 lengths that separated Dayatthespa and Stephanie’s Kitten at the end of the Filly and Mare Turf was probably the difference maker. Dayatthespa won the Grade 1 First Lady, while Stephanie’s Kitten won the Grade 1 Flower Bowl but also finished second in the Grade 1 Beverly D. and Grade 1 Diana. But Dayatthespa gets the nod for winning the head-to-head meeting in the biggest race and securing a second Grade 1 victory.

Male sprinter – There hasn’t been a decisive leader in this division all year, so why would things be any different after Work All Week’s upset in the Sprint? The Sprint was Work All Week’s first Grade 1 score and only his second graded score after winning last month’s Grade 3 Phoenix. That’s a pretty light résumé for a championship aspirant. But the good news for Work All Week, aside from his win in the big one, is there are hardly any male sprinters around with better records. Palace lost to Work All Week on Saturday. But Palace did win two Grade 1 races, and won them at a major venue in Saratoga. This is a tough one that requires more consideration. At this moment, I’m inclined to go for Palace but reserve the right to change my mind.

Female sprinter – Win the Filly and Mare Sprint, and you’re pretty much assured of winning this divisional title. But the satisfying aspect to Filly and Mare Sprint winner Judy the Beauty being the almost-certain champion here is that this year she also has a win in the Grade 1 Madison as well as a pair of Grade 3 scores. That’s a perfectly acceptable championship résumé for this group.

Horse of the Year finalists – Main Sequence and Untapable, because both were dominant in their divisions, and California Chrome.