01/15/2011 4:27PM

Great season doesn't always culminate with an Eclipse


Say you owned a mare named Sangue, like Charlene Parks did lo these many years ago, and by the end of the 1983 season she had won, over a two-year span, the Vanity, the Matriarch, the Yellow Ribbon, the Beverly Hills, the Santa Maria, the Ramona (now the Mabee), the Chula Vista (now the Clement Hirsch), and a smattering of lesser stakes, along with placings in half a dozen other major events and the top rating among older fillies and mares at 1 1/8 miles on the 1983 Daily Racing Form Free Handicap.

Eclipse Award? Nope.

Then there was Exceller, owned by Nelson Bunker Hunt and Belair Stud, who took 1978 by the throat and won the Hollywood Gold Cup, Jockey Club Gold Cup, San Juan Capistrano, Hollywood Invitational, San Luis Rey, Century and Oak Tree Invitational, defeating Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Vigors, Bowl Game, and Noble Dancer II along the way. Think that was good enough for a trophy?

Think again.

Or what about Bold ‘n Determined, owned by Corbin Robertson? All she did in 1980 was win the Kentucky Oaks, the Fantasy, the Acorn, the Coaching Club American Oaks, the Santa Susana (now the Santa Anita Oaks), and defeat older mares in the Spinster. Bold ’n Determined also gave Kentucky Derby winner Genuine Risk four pounds and beat her a nose in the Maskette, which was a pretty good day. So what did she get for the effort?

You guessed it.

Such tales of electoral injustice will serve as cold comfort to those who go home empty-handed Monday night in Miami Beach, where the Eclipse Awards Dinner will honor the champions of 2010 at the Fountainebleau Hotel. All anyone can say to those who come up short in the balloting is something like “Wasn’t it an honor just to be nominated?” or “Thanks for showing up,” although I would wait until the cocktails have taken full effect at the after party.

I have sat near winners like the Farda Amiga crowd, who tossed their own confetti and broke into a wild lambada when her name was announced as champion 3-year-old filly in 2003. I have sat near non-winners like Norberto Arroyo Jr., whose family and friends were, let’s say, extremely disappointed when their man was snubbed in favor of Tyler Baze for champion apprentice of 2000. Extremely.

The winners are more fun to hang with, but the Eclipse also-rans are every bit as important, since they provide historical context for the accomplishments of the champions. Exceller never had a chance at the Eclipse Award for older male in 1978 as long as Seattle Slew was doing his thing, although voters could have thrown him a bone for his turf record, instead of giving the award to the 3-year-old Mac Diarmida. And while Sangue’s considerable achievements on turf flew in the face of All Along, whose 1983 North American exploits against males were good enough to make her Horse of the Year, she was in harsh retrospect a much better choice as all-around mare over Ambassador of Luck, whose 6-for-6 campaign included just three stakes and one Grade 1 event.

As for Bold ’n Determined, the idea of taking a stand against a filly who won the Kentucky Derby is pretty daring, even for the bravest voter. It simply turned out that the two best 3-year-olds of 1980 were fillies, just as the two best racehorses of 2009 were a filly and a mare. Sometimes the Eclipse Awards do not fit the true game on the ground.

As for this year’s Horse of the Year decision, the only thing certain as Monday dawns is that for the first time since the awards dinner in January 2007, Jess Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke will not be taking home the golden trophy.

As the principal owners of Curlin (2007, 2008) and Rachel Alexandra (2009), Jackson and Banke became the first owners in the history of the sport to campaign more than one ultimate champ over three consecutive seasons. By those standards, 2010 was destined to be a letdown, and it was, even though Rachel Alexandra answered the bell with 2 wins in 5 starts before her retirement in September.

“Her Horse of the Year campaign surely took its toll,” Banke said this week from their home in California’s wine country. “Right now she’s a very happy mare at our farm in Kentucky. We’re looking at a date around Valentine’s Day.”

The date to which Banke referred will be with Curlin, standing his second season at stud. Horses of the Year have been mated before – Twilight Tear was bred twice to Whirlaway and once to Count Fleet, All Along went to the ultimate European champs Mill Reef and Dancing Brave, Lady’s Secret had three encounters with Seattle Slew and one with Skip Away, and Azeri‘s three foals have been by A.P. Indy, Ghostzapper, and Europe‘s Cartier Horse of the Year Giant‘s Causeway -- but the offspring of Rachel and Curlin, both children of the far-reaching Internet age, will be particularly anticipated.

Jackson, 80, has had health issues lately. His wife described him as “doing fine, still recuperating right now.” Their Stonestreet Stable horses are currently in action at Santa Anita with a division of the Steve Asmussen stable, among them Kensei, winner of the 2009 Jim Dandy, who is nearing a return.

“Just the other night we watched all Curlin’s races again,” Banke said. “Horses like him and Rachel just don’t come around too often.”

Or Zenyatta, who finished second in the Horse of the Year balloting to Curlin for 2008 and to Rachel Alexandra for the 2009 campaign, by a 130-99 vote.

“We’ll be at home watching the awards Monday night, with considerably less anxiety than in the past,” Banke said. “I haven’t asked Jess, but I’ll be rooting for Zenyatta. I hope she does it.”