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Crist: Older dirt horses need Eclipse of their own
Racing has an Eclipse Awards problem that looks likely to continue when the 2014 champions are announced in January: For the fifth time in the last six years, the statuette for best older male probably will be redundantly bestowed upon a grass horse who is already being honored as the turf champion, instead of being awarded to the nation’s leading older dirt horse.
The Eclipse Awards began in 1971, and for 38 years, the older-male title almost always went to a horse who raced primarily, and usually exclusively, on dirt. Even when a turf horse was judged to be the premier performer of the season and honored with the Horse of the Year award, dirt horses received the older-male title. When John Henry won his second such statuette in 1984 without winning on dirt, the older-male title went to Slew o’ Gold. When the electorate was left with no better Horse of the Year choice than the all-turf Kotashaan in 1993, the older-male title went to Bertrando.
The intent of the award was always to honor the best older performer on dirt, not to play a semantic game and argue that since the grass champion was technically also older and a male, he should be given a second Eclipse. Then, as my colleague Mike Watchmaker wrote this week on drf.com, “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.”
The confusion caused by the synthetic-racing experiment played a part as well. It began in 2009, when the Breeders’ Cup was held on a Pro-Ride surface at Santa Anita, and Gio Ponti ran second to Zenyatta in a year when few other older males distinguished themselves on the main track. At the time, since we were still pretending that synthetics were more like dirt than grass, voters convinced themselves that it was okay to vote for an older-male champion who had never raced on dirt – because he had run well on a synthetic track.
Blame restored tradition for a year in 2010, but then in the next two years, the thinking prevailed that a single dirt start, even in a losing effort, qualified a grass horse for the older-male title. In 2011, Acclamation finished last in his lone dirt start, but four victories on turf and one on synthetic gave him the title. In 2012, Wise Dan lost his lone dirt start, won his lone synthetic start, and was given the older-male title as well as the turf and Horse of the Year trophies.
Then last year, Wise Dan was 6 for 6 on grass, lost his lone synthetic start, and won all three titles again.
This year, the beneficiary of this thinking will be Main Sequence, a thoroughly admirable turf champion and a legitimate Horse of the Year candidate, but to my mind, a horse who should not even be considered for the older-male title. This is no knock whatsoever on Main Sequence, but he will not be one of my three choices in that category, where I expect to vote for Palace Malice over Goldencents and consider the likes of Game On Dude, Will Take Charge, and someone I’m probably forgetting for third.
There are two primary purposes in having year-end titles (in addition to providing us with something to argue about every November and December). One is to recognize excellence and create a record of champions as a guidepost for evaluating talent and planning matings in the future. The other is to encourage and reward owners for keeping horses in training to bid for a championship.
This recent business of giving two awards to a grass horse and none to older dirt horses furthers neither of those aims. We keep beseeching owners to return 3-year-olds to the races at 4 but then refuse to honor one of these older dirt horses with an Eclipse Award, effectively making what is usually racing’s premier division the only one without a championship.
Perhaps it is time to change the title of the award. Calling it “Best Older Dirt Male” would eliminate the rationalizations for doubling up on turf horses and honor the intent of the award.
Best Older Male should be just that - Best Older Male horse whether it is dirt or turf...clearly some in the media want it to mean for the dirt and distance or router...but, what happens to say Goldencents who is a sprinter/miler at best? If he is considered as is the case by Crist along with Palace Malice, who's best races were at a mile, then there is no reason not to include turf horses and namely Main Sequence, who went 4-4 since being in the U.S...
Last year should have been Mucho MAcho Man, dirt horse, winner. He never stood a chance against WD.
I fully agree that the DIRT part of older horse needs to be made explicit, for there are so many out there who can't wrap their heads around the fact that dirt is the primary US surface and that we already have an award for the turf specialists. Dirt horses aren't the specialists, they are the standard. If the 'older horse' means ANY 'older horse', why don't they consider turf mares for 'older females?' At least be consistent, people. And don't get hung up on the fact that horses leave the scene early - it happens. Ack Ack colicked in August, nearly dying, and never ran again. He still had won the Santa Anita H under 130 lbs and the Hollywood Gold Cup under 134 lbs, and none of the eastern horses had done anything comparable. Hence champion older horse and HotY.
Until the titles of the awards are changed, the Wise Dan precedent should be respected.
Not to argue with the article. However, I wonder how important these awards really are. A group of mostly very wealthy folks get together in a ballroom in L.A. or South Florida each year and pat themselves on the back. The next day DRF, TVG, HRTV etc makes mention of it and the day after (except for those who have won a piece of mental also known as a trophy, it is pretty much forgotten. Sort of like 90%+ of all college bowl games. So forgive those of us who don't feel like arguing if horse A is better then horse B on any given day. That said I enjoy your writing and am glad you seem recovered from you episode.
I agree that awards are good for the business. But, remember, the word "DIRT" is not on any of the Eclipse Awards. In the English language, words like "dirt" and "soil" have bad connotations. Since awards are good for business and make us happy about the game, we should add 4 more awards: 1) American Turf Horse of the Year, 2) American Turf Sprint Champion, 3) American 2 Year Old Turf Chamption, 4) American 3 Year Old Turf Champion. All with the proviso that, any non-turf award winner must compete at least twice on dirt to be considered for a non-turf award (unless, they compete in a BC non-turf race).
Watchmakers top list looked more like a disturbing injury/retired list this year for the older ladies and males on concrete dirt. Even the two year old juvenile dirt division was getting weaken by injuries after only three races in their careers. The three year old dirt division looked better because there weren't any older dirt horses left in the second half of the year. Should only one grade 1 victory earn a horse an eclipse award ? Main sequence didn't lose races like kotashaan and John Henry did during their horse of the year seasons.
This makes complete sense to me and I would change my vote if I had one after reading it, but alas I don't. Although that division has fallen apart the past few years and that is what opened the door to the Dan Precedent. Probably Palace Malice but Goldencents deserves some love, too.
Why not Goldencents?
If any of the older dirt males had put together a campaign even reminiscent of a deserving champion this year, it wouldn't be an issue. Voters are not biasing towards turf horses, they're just choosing not to reward utter mediocrity. I don't see how you're so sure Main Sequence will be voted champion older male, anyways - Palace Malace's stellar first-half may well be enough to get him the award, despite his uninspiring exit in the Whitney. The other best choices? Game On Dude, who won one race this year and placed in no other G1s, and Moreno, who was just beaten 40 lengths in the BCC. Not exactly deserving. I will say I think Game On Dude was robbed last year by awarding the honor to Wise Dan. But in every other year you mentioned, there was really not a viable dirt-campaigned alternative. In Kotashaan's year, Bertrando won because he put together a stellar season, not because he happened to be the next best alternative to Kotashaan running on dirt.