11/20/2015 11:58AM

Hovdey: Eclipse engraver has a big head start


The Eclipse Awards dinner is set for Jan. 16 at Gulfstream Park, which means the sponsors have less than two months to figure out a way to make it exciting. Right now, the event figures to provide about as much drama as the 1998 Academy Awards.

Best Picture? “Titanic.”

Best Director? “Titanic.”

Best score, sound, cinematography, editing? “Titanic,” “Titanic,” “Titanic,” “Titanic.”

My “L.A. Confidential” never had a chance.

When it comes to ladling out the loudest praise for the 2015 Thoroughbred season, American Pharoah & Co. figure to sweep everything in sight, right down to Victor Espinoza toppling the Venezuelan ATM better known as Javier Castellano, who broke his own record for purse earnings in a season. Bob Baffert and Ahmed Zayat can start writing their speeches now because they will be wearing a pathway from their table to the stage, and they’d better have something interesting to say when they get there.

In fact, it is doubtful there will be a shocker all evening long, unless the NTRA does something truly creative and invites Maria Borell to present the trophy to the champion male sprinter. I’d pay good money to see that.

Right down the line, every single category has been cooled out and put away, with the possible exception of female sprinter. Over that trophy no sleep will be lost, being a subdivision springing from a newfangled Breeders’ Cup race that diluted the honor of the fastest horse in North America, male or female. Years from now, the relative merits of Wavell Avenue and La Verdad will be lost in the mists of time, other than to note that trainer Chad Brown finally won a Breeders’ Cup race on dirt. It was bound to happen.

The rest of the championships will fall neatly into place: Beholder as older female, Stellar Wind as 3-year-old filly, Big Blue Kitten and Tepin for the turf titles, Runhappy the deserving male sprinter, Songbird and Nyquist the obvious 2-year-olds, and Honor Code, who beat Liam’s Map on the square, as top older male. They all will take a bow and then fade to footnotes beneath the dominant personality of the season.

American Pharoah did not simply suck all the air from the room. He left behind a heady aroma of the extraordinary, the result of a satisfying campaign that ticked off every historical requirement for greatness, including a loss at Saratoga.

A single individual has not been so dominant since 1996, when the coattails of Cigar’s 1996 Horse of the Year campaign (his second straight) extended not only to jockey Jerry Bailey, trainer Bill Mott, and owner Allen Paulson but also inspired the sponsoring organizations to present Paulson with an Eclipse Award of Merit. You would think owning Cigar would be its own reward. But hey, it was that kind of landslide.

While we’re at it, someone must explain for me – talking very slowly and using small words – why for the past five years the trainer of the Horse of the Year has not won the Eclipse Award. The question hangs like a slow curve: What did John Shirreffs, Larry Jones, Charlie LoPresti, and Art Sherman do wrong in their handling of Zenyatta, Havre de Grace, Wise Dan, and California Chrome?

I suppose they could take comfort in the fact that Carl Hanford, who trained Kelso to be Horse of the Year for an unfathomable five straight seasons in the early 1960s, was not deemed worthy for admission to the Thoroughbred racing Hall of Fame until 2006, only 40 years after Kelso had retired. No sense in making hasty decisions.

Baffert will win the trainer’s trophy this year in a waltz, although you just know there will be some contrarian turf writer who will mark his ballot for Dale Romans, who beat American Pharoah in the Travers with Keen Ice and Castellano. There also will be the obligatory votes for the Todd Pletcher juggernaut because some ballots actually arrive premarked “Todd Pletcher.” Saves time.

Baffert should take heart if he is not the unanimous choice. There always has been a baffling disconnect among Eclipse Award voters when it comes to acknowledging the individual behind the best horse in the land. Prior to Steve Asmussen’s back-to-back awards when Rachel Alexandra (2009) and the 4-year-old Curlin (2008) were given the supreme honor, the last Horse of the Year trainer to win the Eclipse Award was that guy Mott in 1996.

In 1978, the last time a 3-year-old won the Triple Crown before American Pharoah came along, the Eclipse dinner proved a clean sweep for Affirmed. Horse of the Year went to the Triple Crown hero, as did Eclipse Awards for both owner and breeder to the Harbor View Farm of Lou and Patrice Wolfson. Lazaro Barrera, the man in Affirmed’s corner, took home the trophy for best trainer, and the Eclipse Award for champion jockey went to … Darrel McHargue?

Affirmed’s jockey, Steve Cauthen, 18 at the time, was coming off an Eclipse Award season in 1977 when he also ended up being Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year. The teenager was praised far and wide for his Triple Crown performances aboard Affirmed, just as Victor Espinoza has been lauded for his work with American Pharoah. But in the end, it was McHargue’s record earnings total that carried the vote, not to mention his 37 major stakes wins and his runner-up finish to Eddie Delahoussaye in total wins.

Maybe there will be some dinner drama after all.