12/17/2015 12:26PM

Crist: Polls should stay open for female sprint vote

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Balloting for the 2015 Eclipse Awards officially began Wednesday, but responsible voters will wait until at least the evening of Dec. 26 to make their final choices: That is the date of the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes at Santa Anita, and the winner of that race could vault to the leadership of a division that currently has an unsatisfactory front-runner.

The trophy in question is the one for champion female sprinter, the Eclipse category with the fewest major races. There are only six Grade 1 races for 3-year-old and/or older fillies all year – the Madison at Keeneland, the Humana Distaff at Churchill, the Test and the Ballerina at Saratoga, the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, and the La Brea.

The five run so far this year produced five different winners: Princess Violet (Madison), Dame Dorothy (Humana Distaff), Cavorting (Test), Unbridled Forever (Ballerina), and Wavell Avenue (BC Filly and Mare Sprint). Since the last race in that sequence is the most important of the small lineup, many voters have already inked in Wavell Avenue as their Eclipse winner. In the eight years since the category was added to the Eclipse lineup, the Breeders’ Cup race winner has won the Eclipse seven times.

With only six Grade 1’s and only four of those open to older fillies (the Test and La Brea are restricted to 3-year-olds), it is unfair to ask championship contenders in this division to be multiple Grade 1 winners. For four of the eight previous Eclipse winners – the category was only begun in 2007 – the BC Filly and Mare Sprint was their lone Grade 1 victory of their championship seasons.

Still, Wavell Avenue comes up short in comparison to every previous winner of the award because all of them won more than one graded stakes during their title years. Musical Romance (2011) and Groupie Doll (2013) won two, Maryfield (2007) and Dubai Majesty (2010) won three, Judy the Beauty (2014) won four, Informed Decision (2009) and Groupie Doll (2012) won five, and Indian Blessing (2008) won six.

Wavell Avenue won one. She did not win another graded or even non-graded stakes of any kind this year, taking three allowance races and losing all three of her stakes starts before the Breeders’ Cup. She was third in the restricted Zadracarta, fourth in the restricted Shine Again, and second in the Gallant Bloom, her only graded appearance before the Breeders’ Cup.

This is hardly a campaign worthy of a championship. The list of legitimate challengers, however, is thin. La Verdad and Lady Shipman were both better pure sprinters, but both ran second at the Breeders’ Cup and failed to win a Grade 1. Dame Dorothy and Princess Violet floundered beyond their lone Grade 1 triumphs.

There is, however, one plausible alternative: Cavorting, who may already deserve the title and absolutely should get it if she wins the La Brea and the Eclipse voters are still paying attention. She already is the only candidate with both a Grade 1 and a Grade 2 victory. A La Brea score would give her twice as many Grade 1’s, three times as many graded stakes, and four times as many stakes victories as Wavell Avenue, despite her fourth-place finish from post 14 as the favorite in the BC Filly and Mare Sprint.

There is precedent for a late La Brea victory to tip the scales against a BC Filly and Mare Sprint winner for the title. In 2008, the 3-year-old Indian Blessing ran second as the favorite in the Filly and Mare Sprint to Ventura but then came back to win the La Brea and the Eclipse. Her Grade 1 victories were in the Prioress, Test, and La Brea, the same three races Cavorting will have won if she triumphs at Santa Anita on Dec. 26. (The Prioress has since been downgraded from Grade 1 to Grade 2 status.)

Fair-minded voters will wait for the La Brea to pick the divisional winner. However that turns out, the industry needs to rethink the stakes lineup and schedule for this division. It is inadequate that there are only six Grade 1 races at less than a mile, that all of them are at seven rather than six furlongs, and that the division goes from Derby Day until Saratoga without a Grade 1 race.

One possible change would be to open up the La Brea and the Malibu to older horses and cut them back to six furlongs instead of having a pair of seven-furlong sprints restricted to 3-year-olds as the final Grade 1 races of the year. That could make those races relevant in determining the male and female sprint champions in many years. Wouldn’t it be fun if Cavorting, Wavell Avenue, and La Verdad met one more time to settle the title?

If female sprinters are important enough to have an Eclipse Award, they are deserving of a stakes program to showcase their talents and determine a true champion.