12/14/2009 12:00AM

Filling in the Eclipse Award gap


Eclipse Award ballots will be circulating soon among members of the National Turf Writers Association, America's racing secretaries, and employees of Daily Racing Form. As a freelance columnist for this publication and others, I vote with the turf writers' group. As a concession to my belief that racing fans should have a vote for Horse of the Year, I am committing my Horse of the Year vote for Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra based on e-mails I have been receiving at davidwtz@aol.com As of Dec. 13, the tally was 24-23 for Rachel, with more e-mail votes yet to be counted.

Beyond Horse of the Year, and votes cast for less controversial categories - such as Summer Bird for top 3-year-old male and Gio Ponti for top male grass horse - I personally will look at the Eclipse ballot and wonder, somewhat facetiously, somewhat with a straight face, why Eclipse Awards are so narrowly focused and do not include several categories that would spice up the year-end proceedings.

Shouldn't we, for example, honor the trainer who not only did the best work throughout the year, but the best work with one horse in one very important race? Shouldn't there also be an award for the year's best single performance by a jockey? What about our track announcers? Why not an Eclipse Award for the year's very best rendering of an important race? Shouldn't we also have a category to recognize a racing official or racing organization that did something concrete to improve the game?

With that in mind, here are my 2009 Eclipse Awards that did not make the ballot:

* Best training feat for one specific race: My nominees are John Shirreffs for his perfect handling of Zenyatta for the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, Chip Woolley for his steadfast belief and insightful training of Mine That Bird for the Kentucky Derby, Tim Ice for his smooth preparation of Summer Bird for the historic Travers Stakes, and Freddie Head for his careful orchestration of Goldikova's repeat win in the BC Mile.

Have to give this one to Chip Woolley, probably the only man in the world who believed he was training a Derby horse when he shipped to Churchill Downs by van from Sunland Park after a fourth-place finish in the Sunland Park Derby. Woolley also went virtually unnoticed throughout Derby week while trying to convince a handful of reporters and his loyal owners and jockey that Mine That Bird actually could win the world's most famous race.

While many may view the Derby outcome as a fluke, Mine That Bird did run two very good races in the Preakness and Belmont to furtherjustify Woolley's confidence in his underrated horse. That said, Mine That Bird probably should not have run in the BC Classic,as he had not recovered his form after his throat operation during the summer. Now, Woolley will have his hands full bringing his star gelding back to top form in 2010.

* Best ride by a jockey in an important race: My nominees are Calvin Borel aboard Mine That Bird in the Kentucky Derby and Mike Smith aboard Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

In one of the finest rides of his Hall of Fame career, Smith saved ground and weaved his way to the outside to give Zenyatta clear sailing for her powerful late surge. But Borel probably won plenty of future Hall of Fame votes with his daring, all-or-nothing ride through the tightest of spots in the Churchill Downs stretch. In a close photo, my vote goes to Borel, without whom Mine That Bird might have finished fourth in Louisville.

* Best performance by a track announcer in a nationally important race: My nominees are: Trevor Denman and Tom Durkin.

Denman for his spectacular race call of the Breeders Cup Classic in which he kept Zenyatta's progress at the core of his call and verbalized the finish ("this is un-be-lieve-able") to underscore just how amazing Zenyatta was in that race.

Durkin, for deftly identifying the circumstances facing Rachel Alexandra from the outside post in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness and for delivering all the drama of her narrow victory over Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird. In another close one, I would vote for Denman over Durkin, simply on the memorable nature of Denman's call. Yet, together these two superlative track announcers have been the best in American racing for more than a quarter century. On several occasions both have reported signature races so well that they probably deserved legit Eclipse Awards for their excellence in broadcast journalism.

If there actually were extra Eclipse categories aimed at rewarding people or organizations that actually help horseplayers, I would nominate two innovations that occurred this year: (a) The introduction of color-coded saddle cloths for Breeders' Cup races and (b) The free access to complete result charts with index dates and other details provided by Equibase as sponsored by the Taylor Made Farm in Kentucky.

Previously, all Breeders' Cup horses wore purple saddle cloths that did not help TV viewers, or those at the track, hoping to follow the flow of the race without high-powered binoculars and/or a trained eye. Credit the Breeders' Cup organization for finally adopting these helpful visual aids that have been regularly employed at virtually every track in America for more than a decade.

With a financial boost from Taylor Made, the Equibase company that compiles the relative positions of all horses in all races for the production of Daily Racing Form past performances and official result charts, changed its policy this year. The new policy allows free access to complete result charts at the equibase.com website for every track in the country along with a range of historically important result charts. Access to these complete result charts through the drf.com website or via a search engine to equibase.com previously cost horseplayers, owners, and trainers, $1.50 per day, per track. Under the new policy, the cost is a big fat zero. For that, my vote on behalf of thousands of horseplayers, would go to Taylor Made Farm.

Beyond the above hypothetical categories that could be included in a fan friendly Eclipse Award ballot, I have long thought that the racing industry should have a parallel series of awards to honor public handicappers for special achievements and contributions to the game.

For instance, should anyone pick the 1-2-3 order of finish in all three Triple Crown races next year - as only a handful of public handicappers have in the past 50 years -wouldn't that deserve special public mention? Similarly, if any public handicapper manages to show a rare flat-bet profit on all of his or her published selections for an entire year, shouldn't there be a Handicapper's Achievement Award to honor the feat?

In my judgment, awards for handicapping achievements would do more than give special recognition to a few people each year. It also would promote the core essence of the racetrack game, by placing sharp focus on the finely tuned skills that separate this sport from mindless slots and other pure gambles.

Steve Davidowitz will be at Fair Grounds in New Orleans on Dec. 19 to conduct a handicapping seminar and sign copies of his bestselling new book "Betting Thoroughbreds for the 21st Century".