11/06/2014 2:31PM

Crist: Older dirt horses need Eclipse of their own

Barbara D. Livingston
Main Sequence, who has raced exclusively on the grass, could be yet another turf runner who winds up the older male divisional champion.

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.