12/28/2012 2:27PM

Hovdey: Confessions of a conflicted Eclipse Award voter

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Tom Keyser
Deciding whether to cast a vote for Breeders' Cup Turf winner Little Mike was one of the tougher calls for this year's Eclipse Award voters.

Vote for the Eclipse Awards long enough and you get to know just about everybody who is up for anything at all. Most of the time this is no big deal – the deserving winners stick out like a neon thumb, with neither explanation nor apology required. Only the delusional complain.

Sometimes, though, it can be a tough call, and there will be a palpable sigh heard across the land, closely followed by a twinge of voter’s remorse, when one highly qualified candidate or another comes up short in the count.

So, having just completed my Eclipse Award ballot for 2012 I feel obligated to come clean. No one says I need to – voters sanctioned by Daily Racing Form have a right to keep their Eclipse votes confidential – but the 2012 ballot presented some tangled webs that required a little more wrestling that usual. Certain conclusions left me no solace, so let’s just say the misery would like a little company.

First, though, I need to make a couple phone calls.

Ring. Click. “Hi. You’ve reached Dale. I’m at the gym. Leave me a message.”

“Dale, my man, listen – just a heads up that I did not, repeat, did not vote for Little Mike for champion older male turf horse. I didn’t want you to hear it from someone else. This hurt a lot. Probably the toughest call on the card. Any other year Mikey would be a slam dunk but, well, Lopresti’s been calling every night, offering to help me move, drive me to the airport, whatever. I have forwarded you via Tammy’s e-mail the 1978 record of Exceller, which should at least prove that Little Mike is in very good company with a horse of championship caliber who got shut out even though he won seven major stakes on turf and dirt and beat Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Vigors, Noble Dancer, and Bowl Game that year. Exceller got nothing. Then later the Swedes ate him.

“If it’s any consolation at all, big man, I did vote for Mr. D. Romans for outstanding trainer of the year. I mean, how do you win the Blue Grass, Woodford Reserve, the Met Mile, the Arlington Million, the Pacific Classic, the First Lady, the Breeders’ Cup Turf, and a whole mess of other stakes without being named Frankel…or Fitzsimmons? Anyway, I’ll let you go shop for that new tux. Bye then.”

Ring. Ring. Click. “This is Bob’s phone, but you knew that. When you hear the sound of the heart monitor, say something interesting.”

“Bob, you know who this is. It goes without saying you had the kind of year that deserves a trophy, but there I said it anyway. In fact, you had your best year since 1999, the last time you took home one of these Eclipse things. But jeez man, one step here or there and you win two or three Triple Crown races at the very least. You spot Pletcher more than 300 starters and still beat him on Grade 1 winners, 11 to nine. You even won a couple big ones with your wife’s filly. That’s got to count for something. Championships for the season should not come down to just a couple days, I know, but tell that to the voters who can’t get past the Breeders’ Cup. What can I say – at least you’ve got your health…and Game On Dude back for another campaign.”

Ring. Ring. Ring. Click. “Hello, Mort Fink please. No? Okay, could you please give him a message. Yes I’ll wait while you get a pencil.

“Mister Fink, there is no reason you should care, but just for the record and in case we run into each other at your favorite Chicago bar I wanted to explain why I voted for Wise Dan for Horse of the Year and champion male turf horse but for another horse for champion older male. It’s complicated.

“Wise Dan is the best American turf miler since Lure. No argument there. And Wise Dan is a monster on synthetic, if that indeed was Wise Dan running off the screen in the Ben Ali. Whoever it was went by pretty fast. But Wise Dan did not win a dirt race in 2012, and even though it doesn’t say so anywhere in the voting instructions that the champion older male has to be a dirt horse (only older than 3 and male), such has been the tradition since the Eclipse Awards began in 1971, or about eight years before you founded Warner Home Video and gave the world the choice of VHS or beta.

“I was never a beta guy, but I do like tradition,which means I go for the horse with the best dirt form in that category unless the well is so dry there’s nothing to do but vote for Gio Ponti. This year there were a lot of very good main track horses, including Ron the Greek, who beat your horse in the Foster when your horse had trouble. So it goes. There was also Game On Dude, Mucho Macho Man, Shackleford, Tapizar, and To Honor and Serve – parity at a very high level. I ended up going for Fort Larned, who as you know won the Whitney and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, although you probably were still celebrating Wise Dan’s Breeders’ Cup Mile when they ran the Classic an hour later. And I can’t blame you.”

There. That should cover the tough ones. The fillies offered no intellectual challenge – Royal Delta, Zagora, Groupie Doll, Beholder, well duh – and the young lads I’ll Have Another and Shanghai Bobby were without peer, while speedy Trinniberg will become the first champion to wear a yellow bridle, so we’ve got that going for us. Mort Fink won a coin toss with Fort Larned’s Jan Whitham and 3-year-old champ I’ll Have Another’s Paul Reddam for my vote in the owner column. All three represent the kind of patron the game desperately needs.

I do not vote in the steeplechase category because I am not qualified to decipher the deeply confusing form of those brave creatures. Simply not falling would seem to me to be a championship performance. I do not like voting for a champion breeder since there are too many apples and oranges in the barrel, but I went for the Phipps Stable over Darley because they keep breeding horses like Point of Entry, Boisterous, and Sea Island half a century after breeding horses like Buckpasser, Bold Lad, and Bold Bidder. Also, I never get tired of hearing Shug McGaughey talk.

Oh, and I stopped voting in the category of apprentice jockeys a long time ago. I am convinced it does them no good at that stage of their careers, that early success should be its own reward, and that if a young jock needs the incentive of winning an Eclipse Award to knuckle down and do the work he probably needs to go back to school. Besides, there’s something way out of whack this year for any other jockey on the planet to be standing alongside Ramon Dominguez holding an Eclipse Award.