03/04/2011 3:32PM

Eclipse Award voting system works well


In the balloting for 2010 Eclipse Awards, 17 voters chose Jerry Hollendorfer as the nation’s outstanding trainer, the third highest number of first-place votes behind Todd Pletcher’s 168 and John Shirreffs’s 28. Bob Baffert received only one first-place vote. Yet when the three finalists for the title were announced in early January, they were Pletcher, Baffert, and Shirreffs.

It turns out there was a logical explanation for this seemingly inexplicable result. Eclipse voters make a first, second, and third choice in each category, which are respectively worth 10, 5, and 1 points on the scoring system. While Hollendorfer outpolled Baffert 17 to 1 in first-place votes, Baffert received 70 second-place and 69 third-place votes. Hollendorfer got just 34 seconds and 44 thirds, giving him 384 points to Baffert’s 429. Even Shirreffs’s 28 first-place votes were not enough for him to finish second as he got only 24 second-place votes and 22 thirds, for a total of 422 points.

These and some other similar quirks came to light this week after an analysis of the 1-2-3 voting totals (a complete listing of the more than 200 horses and humans who received at least one third-place vote can be found on my blog). Discreetly Mine received the third most first-place votes for champion sprinter but missed being a finalist behind Smiling Tiger, who received a single first-place vote. Franny Freud received the second highest number of first-place votes behind runaway winner Dubai Majesty but was a not a finalist, while Champagne d’Oro finished second in the division without getting any first-place votes.

While these results may seem discordant, they are not necessarily unfair. Second and third counts for something. (Is it unjust that First Dude earned more money running second and third in numerous stakes races last year than major stakes winners Afleet Express, Drosselmeyer, or Sidney’s Candy did?) Baffert was named on 140 ballots, Hollendorfer on just 95.

More important, the points system is necessary to prevent far greater injustices when the finalists are announced each year. If only first-place votes were considered, you would have had undeserving finalists in several categories, and horses who clearly earned the distinction of being one of the top three in their division would have been overlooked. Some examples:

◗ Pluck rather than To Honor and Serve would have joined Uncle Mo (236 first-place votes) and Boys At Tosconova (one such vote) because he received a single first-place vote, despite being named as one of the top three on only 46 of 238 ballots. To Honor and Serve was named second or third on 124 ballots.

◗ More Than Real rather than R Heat Lightning would have been a 2-year-old filly finalist off a single first-place vote, even though R Heat Lightning was named on 146 ballots to More Than Real’s 69.

◗ Drosselmeyer (three first-place votes) rather than Paddy O’Prado (one) would have been the third 3-year-old colt finalist, despite being chosen in the top three on only 25 ballots as opposed to Paddy O’Prado’s 106.

◗ There would have been only two 3-year-old filly finalists – Blind Luck with 237 first-place votes and No Such Word with one vote as opposed to the other deserving finalists Evening Jewel (second or third on 141 ballots) and Havre de Grace (named on 139 ballots.)

The point system was instituted to determine the second- and third-place finishers in each division to prevent exactly these kinds of results. Only first-place votes are considered for determining the winner of each division – otherwise, mischievous voters could try to aid their selection’s chances by leaving a rival off the ballot entirely. Whether you were rooting for Blame or Zenyatta for Horse of the Year, excluding the other off your ballot for second or third did you no good. (This did not stop four people from not picking Blame 1-2-3 or two people from doing the same with Zenyatta.)

The point system, rather than first-place votes, clearly works far better for determining the other two finalists in each category. Being the second- or third-best horse in your division is an honor worth commemorating correctly, and it would be a sham if a single first-place vote cast in anger, ignorance, or whimsy made an undeserving horse an Eclipse Awards finalist while excluding one whom voters overwhelmingly considered one of the top three.

Despite an occasional confusing result like the one for champion trainer, the system works. What will make it work better is when these complete totals are released the night the awards are announced, which will happen starting next year.