12/18/2015 3:16PM

Hovdey: Eclipse votes range from obvious to curious


The heavy responsibility of deciding who gets an Eclipse Award falls upon the shoulders of 282 voters who received e-ballots this week. As one of them, I clicked the appropriate prompts and discovered, much to my delight, that a wave of memories welled up, not unlike Proust’s involuntary flood of remembrances unlocked by the nibble of a madeleine cookie dipped in tea.

“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me,” he wrote in Swann’s Way.

I was first entrusted with an Eclipse ballot in 1977, as an editor with Daily Racing Form, and there was Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew front and center. Affirmed and Forego also were on the ballot, elevated to titles along with Lakeville Miss, Our Mims, Johnny D., Cascapedia, What a Summer, and Café Prince. Of course, I voted for all the winners. Such is the sweet haze of memory.

There was no real challenge to voting for Horse of the Year for several seasons after that. A blind man with a pin and a program could have come up with Affirmed, Affirmed again, Spectacular Bid, and John Henry. Then came the raucous 1982 season and the first time I was forced to more broadly define what it meant to be a Horse of the Year.

Perrault ended up as my choice over Conquistador Cielo (the winner) and Lemhi Gold. I’ll admit that I wormed my way close to Perrault, or at least as close as his ornery streak would allow, for he was no cuddly American Pharoah kind of Thoroughbred. Lay down with Perrault, and you’d wake up without a hand.

Perrault beat John Henry going 1 1/2 miles on grass. He won the Hollywood Gold Cup on dirt. He set a record in the Arlington Million that stands to this day, and he was one-half of the most exciting race of the year for older horses when he edged John Henry in the Santa Anita Handicap but was disqualified for bearing out.

To this day, I’ll never figure out how the Eclipse voters came up with Perrault as champion male turf horse and Lemhi Gold as champion older horse. They both were adept on grass or dirt. But at least they both got a trophy.

Three years later, the eggs were scrambled again. Spend a Buck was clearly the best horse in New Jersey, winning four stakes in the Garden State, and his detour to win the Kentucky Derby was a lark. Out West, though, I was burdened by the constant bickering between Precisionist and Greinton, two very good 4-year-olds who pushed each other to giddy heights. Between them, they won just about every race that mattered for the division and ended the first half of the year dead even at three decisions each.

I ended up letting the young Breeders’ Cup at Aqueduct decide my Horse of the Year. Greinton tried hard but could not handle the distance or the ground of the Turf, but Precisionist dialed back to perfection in the Sprint and tipped my sentiments his way. Not that it mattered. Spend a Buck was Horse of the Year in a gallop.

We all knew where we were and who we were with when we saw Sonny Hine’s jaw drop at the opening of the 1997 Horse of the Year envelope. The unbeaten 2-year-old Favorite Trick instead of the accomplished Skip Away, the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Jockey Club Gold Cup? I was no help, voting for Gentlemen, the winner of the Pimlico Special, San Antonio, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic. But, as happened in 1982, it appeared as if the older horses split the vote of those leaning their way, leaving the spoils to Favorite Trick.

This year’s voting should be pretty clear cut, even beyond American Pharoah’s awards for 3-year-old male and Horse of the Year. Runhappy, for all his soap opera, will be a fine sprint champ, while Beholder will become the first female in 52 years to win championships in three divisions. Stellar Wind should have clinched her award by leaving the other 3-year-old fillies behind in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Songbird and Nyquist are slam dunks among 2-year-olds, as are Tepin and Big Blue Kitten on grass. I refuse to lose a moment’s sleep over the female sprinter or the steeplechase horse.

Much as racing fans would like to believe that the Eclipse Awards are just another subjective popularity contest sometimes divorced from the reality of what actually happened on North American racetracks, the process is important. The history of the sport is hung upon its champions, and for 45 years the Eclipse Awards have provided an organized method of selection.

It is time, however, for the sponsors of the awards – the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, and Daily Racing Form – to welcome some level of voter representation from the vast pool of racing fans whose numbers have become evident through social media and racing’s array of Internet websites. If some group can come up with a viable formula, it could happen.

Even so, I don’t think any amount of fan support could have helped me push Tiznow over the Horse of the Year goal line ahead of Point Given in 2001, or Pleasantly Perfect in place of Mineshaft in 2003, or Zenyatta instead of that girl Rachel in 2009. But at least it was fun to try.