01/21/2016 12:40PM

Crist: Eclipse voting mixed slam dunks with a few longshots


A few final thoughts on the voting for the 2015 Eclipse Awards, which were presented last Saturday at Gulfstream Park:

 Unanimity: It was surprising to find out that we’d gone almost as long without a unanimous Horse of the Year as we had without a Triple Crown winner. American Pharoah was the first since John Henry back in 1981. It also was surprising that there weren’t a few other divisional champions this year to receive 100 percent of the vote, but a handful of dopey selections left Songbird (99.61 percent), Nyquist (98.89), Beholder (98.08), and Runhappy (97.70) just short of perfect slates.

 Surprisingly easy: The contest for female turf horse, a rare showdown among three Breeders’ Cup winners, looked like a close one on paper but turned out to be a runaway for Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Tepin (81.15 percent) over Turf winner Found (14.61), with Filly and Mare Turf winner Stephanie’s Kitten a distant third.

 Surprisingly close: We knew going in that the vote in categories such as 3-year-old filly and female sprinter were going to be fractured among several candidates, but it was unexpected that Honor Code would receive less than 50 percent of the votes for older dirt male. He got only 126 of the 259 votes (48.64 percent), just 31 more than Liam’s Map, even though he spotted Liam’s Map seven pounds and beat him a neck in the Whitney in their lone meeting.

 Abstentions: There were a handful of abstentions in most categories and a flood of them in two divisions: 44 voters declined to pick a steeplechaser, and 30 passed on selecting an apprentice jockey. While the winners in both categories were thoroughly deserving, all those non-votes can be seen as votes for change.

The steeplechase award probably should be selected by a smaller committee of people who know what they’re looking at instead of by a larger group that rarely sees a jump race all year and then spends a minute and a half looking at past performances to pick a champion. The award has been selected by committee in the past, and it’s worth considering a return to that process. (Interestingly, some steeplechase officials prefer the open vote because a minute and a half is better than no exposure at all.)

The apprentice jockey award is problematic because so many of the leading candidates ride outside the major circuits and top-flight competition. How can you compare someone who is dominant against lesser competition with someone who wins far fewer races but against the nation’s top riders? No other Eclipse category honors someone who rarely competes at the top level of the game.

There’s a reasonable argument for scrapping the award entirely – there isn’t one for best new owner or trainer of the year, so why have one for jockeys?

 The upset: The one genuinely surprising winner was for female sprinter, where La Verdad triumphed with 98 votes (38.38 percent) to Wavell Avenue’s 90 (35.15 percent), with Lady Shipman third at 41 votes (16.02 percent).

It’s difficult to get too exercised about this result because this was in many ways a division without a fully deserving champion. Wavell Avenue won the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint over La Verdad, but that was her lone stakes victory. The rest of La Verdad’s season, however, was stronger, and Lady Shipman won the most stakes, but they were turf sprints.

It’s a division where it’s unfair to argue that a Grade 1 winner must receive the award, as there are only four such races on the calendar, and every one of them is at seven furlongs. There’s something to be said for cutting the Filly and Mare Sprint back to six furlongs, and for major tracks to start funding and promoting sprint stakes for fillies with an eye toward building them into Grade 1 races.

 Head-scratching votes: It’s a pretty big field of contenders for dopiest votes of the year, including those for winless California Chrome as top older male, Mongolian Saturday over Runhappy for male sprinter, Chiropractor as male turf horse, and Curvy as female turf horse. The strangest vote of all, however, was the one that has been inscribed in the record books as one vote for Poet Her as outstanding trainer.

After unsuccessfully trying to locate any training records for a Mr. or Ms. Her, I asked the electoral accountants for an explanation. As it turns out, Poet Her has six of the same eight letters as a far better-known trainer, and apparently some spell-checking programs will automatically change Pletcher to Poet Her.