01/07/2016 1:48PM

Crist: Does Baffert need American Pharoah's coattails?


When the Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer is dispensed next Saturday night, the winner will be the latest answer to a riddle that has surrounded the title since its inception: Is the trainer of the year the trainer of the Horse of the Year or the trainer who had the best overall season?

There is no definitive answer in the past performances. At the 44 awards ceremonies since the Eclipse era began in 1971, the Horse of the Year’s trainer has won the award only 12 times, and there has been no particular rhyme or reason to why it happens when it does.

Charlie Whittingham won the award in the years he trained Ack Ack (1971) and Sunday Silence (1989) to Horse of the Year titles but not when he campaigned Ferdinand to that honor in 1987. Bobby Frankel won four straight Eclipses from 2000 to 2003 without a Horse of the Year, and then when he had one with Ghostzapper in 2004, the award went to Todd Pletcher. That was the first of seven Eclipses in the last 11 years for Pletcher, all without a Horse of the Year in his shed row.

In the last 25 years, the training honoree has trained the Horse of the Year only four times: Steve Asmussen with Curlin in 2008 and Rachel Alexandra in 2009, and Bill Mott with Cigar in 1995 and 1996. It happened a lot more often in the early years of the award: Seven of the first 11 winners trained that season’s Horse of the Year; since then, only five of 33 have.

This year, there are three truly outstanding finalists representing both sides of the choice between outstanding performance with one horse or with many.

On one hand, there is the obviously spectacular work of Bob Baffert with American Pharoah, who not only became racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years but also finished the season with a smashing Breeders’ Cup Classic victory. Then you have the sensational overall seasons by Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown, both of whom improved on their own gaudy numbers in 2014, when they ran 1-2 for the award.

In 2015, Pletcher’s horses led the nation with $26.2 million in earnings, including 47 graded stakes races. He won 15 Grade 1 races, including two Breeders’ Cup events, with an astounding 13 different horses, four of whom (Liam’s Map, Rachel’s Valentina, Rock Fall, and Stopchargingmaria) are finalists for divisional Eclipses.

Brown, with fewer starters, earned $20.2 million, won nine Grade 1s (and two Cup races) with seven different horses, and could have as many as three divisional Eclipse winners with Big Blue Kitten, Stephanie’s Kitten, and Wavell Avenue. He dominated American grass racing like no one else ever has in a single season: On grass alone, Brown’s charges won eight Grade 1s and $15.5 million, a record for single-season earnings on that surface.

By comparison, Baffert finished third to them with $16.2 million in purses and won eight Grade 1 races, with American Pharoah providing six of the Grade 1s and more than half of the outfit’s purse earnings. American Pharoah was the only horse he even ran in the Breeders’ Cup. Baffert did magnificent work with the big horse but clearly has had deeper overall years since winning the last of his three straight training awards from 1997 through 1999.

Should winning the Triple Crown be an automatic path to the training Eclipse? From a very limited sample size, it hasn’t worked out that way. Laz Barerra won it when Affirmed wore the Crown in 1978, but both Lucien Laurin with Secretariat in 1973 and Billy Turner with Seattle Slew in 1977 were denied: The 1973 award went to Allen Jerkens, and Barrera won it every year from 1976 through 1979.

What about this year? Despite the low success rate for trainers of Horses of the Year and even Triple Crown winners, and despite the tremendous seasons by Brown and Pletcher, Baffert is the odds-on choice. The 37-year drought between Triple Crowns and the run of 12 straight failures by Derby-Preakness winners to seal the deal in the Belmont made this one an even greater achievement. The runaway victory in the Classic put an exclamation point on the historic campaign.

Any of the three finalists would be a worthy winner after an excellent year, but this was American Pharoah’s year, and it will almost surely be Baffert’s as well.