01/07/2011 7:57AM

2010 Eclipse Awards: Tuscan Evening

Benoit & Associates

The naming of finalists for an Eclipse Award category is not intended to honor the fallen. Sometimes it just works out that way.

Tuscan Evening was head and shoulders the most accomplished American-based female on the turf through the first seven months of the 2010 season. During a stretch of six perfect appearances that embraced the West and Midwest, the 5-year-old daughter of Oasis Dream -- she of the long blaze and white lips -- did what only the very best horses do, displaying a versatility that translated over a variety of distances against a talented and proven cast of opponents.

Tuscan Evening began the season at Santa Anita with a relentless progression through a series of graded events that included the Monrovia Handicap at 6 1/2 furlongs, the Buena Vista Handicap at one mile, the Santa Ana Handicap at 1 1/8 miles, and the Santa Barbara Handicap at 1 1/4 miles. No mare in the history of the track had ever put together such a package.

Predictably, there was criticism from far-flung precincts. Tuscan Evening’s opposition was questioned, and her victories were characterized as paceless strolls, easy pickings for a mare of her natural speed. The fact that she sprinted like a sprinter and got a classic distance without a second breath was for some reason overlooked.

It was left to the Grade 1 Gamely Handicap at Hollywood Park to set the record straight. Former champion Forever Together invaded from the East, in good spirits and ready to relive her Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf from 2008 at Santa Anita, while the local opposition was led by Cat by the Tale, the San Gorgonio winner who had been pointed expressly for the Gamely by Neil Drysdale.

The race played out as advertised. Tracking the pace of Cat by the Tale, Tuscan Evening got the best of her deep in the stretch and then withstood the closing punch of Forever Together. At the line, the margins were half a length and three-quarters of a length in what was Callifornia’s best race of the year for the division.

Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer then set his sights on the prestigious Beverly D at Arlington Park, approaching that prize by way of the Modesty Handicap over the same course and 1 3/16-mile distance. Tuscan Evening won easily, giving runner-up Éclair de Lune 11 pounds, and went home to Del Mar to prepare for the big one.

Then, on the morning of Aug. 8, Tuscan Evening was finishing a routine breeze on the Del Mar grass course when something burst inside her. She wobbled and went down on the clubhouse turn, and was dead before anyone could do anything about it. Just like that, America’s turf mares had lost their leader.

“Make no mistake, something like that hits you hard,“ Hollendorfer said days later. “I’m sure it affects us more than we like to let on. I’ll tell you what, I shed some tears for her.”

Whether or not Tuscan Evening would have met Goldikova in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Churchill Downs or tried 11 furlongs in the BC Filly and Mare Turf remains poignant speculation. Either way, there is little doubt she would have made an impact.

Instead, there are only memories, for Hollendorfer, for owner Will de Burgh, and for her jockey, Rafael Bejarano, who rode her in each of her 2010 starts. In a career that stretched from Europe to California, Tuscan Evening won 12 of 27, $1.1 million, and an everlasting place among the best of 2010.

PAST PERFORMANCES: Tuscan Evening's 2010 season PPs (PDF)

KEY RACE REPLAY: Gamely Handicap at Hollywood Park >>