01/18/2016 3:47PM

Hovdey: Eclipses come to roost for three top trainers


There were a whole bunch of firsts celebrated at the 45th Eclipse Awards dinner last Saturday night at Gulfstream Park, some of them historic, others merely adding a little zip to a long night.

First, I was genuinely surprised that my tuxedo fit, and remind me to send a note of appreciation to the guy who invented those adjustment clips on the beltline of the pants. Yes, I will have the key lime pie.

It was the first Eclipse Awards that made use of comic props since Kenny Mayne had a pizza delivered to the Frank Stronach table in New Orleans. Jerry Bailey came out to give the jockey trophy wearing a cheese hat in honor of his Green Bay Packers. Poor Packers. The Hennegan brothers accepted their television award accompanied by a giant wall clock in recognition of the time constraints on acceptance speeches. And Chris McCarron brought out Andy Serling, just for laughs.

It was the first time in his four honorings that Bob Baffert dropped the Eclipse Award statuette, although he recovered it on one bounce and promised to give it 30 days before sending it back to the track. In fairness to Baffert, he had not had one tossed his way since 1999.

It was also a night when three veteran trainers with widespread name recognition laid claim to their first champions, which is no small matter since all three have tried to play at the top of the game for as long as they have been in the business.

Linda Rice is a second-generation trainer who saddled her first winner in 1987, at age 23, and surpassed the 1,000-win mark in 2011. She made history as the first woman to win the Saratoga title in 2009, then added at least a share of three more New York titles since.

Before learning that Sheila Rosenblum’s La Verdad had been voted the champion female sprinter of 2015, Rice was best known for quality runners like City Zip, Tenski, and Palace. Rice has guided La Verdad through a career of 16 wins in 25 starts, which includes four stakes wins in 2015 and a second-place finish to Wavell Avenue in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.

“This is very gratifying,” Rice said as the Eclipse dinner guests dispersed into the warm and windy Florida night. “I’m glad the voters were able to look at her body of work and not hold it against her that she didn’t win a Grade 1 race.”

La Verdad also had a fifth stakes win taken away from her last year by New York officials for a post-race clenbuterol positive. But it was her lack of a Grade 1 win that made the vote the closest of any category, despite the fact that there were only four Grade 1 races for the division in all of 2015 and four different winners. La Verdad received 98 votes to Wavell Avenue’s 90.

The category for female turf champion was arguably the deepest on the Eclipse ballot, with voters having to choose among three Breeders’ Cup winners and an undefeated 3-year-old filly. The fact that Robert Masterson’s Breeders’ Cup Mile winner, Tepin, beat them all silly, with 211 votes out of 260 cast, is a testament to the training of Mark Casse and the way he was able to produce her at her best in seven memorable 2015 starts.

Casse, also a second-generation trainer, took out a license at 18 and had the best season of his 36-year career in 2015. He is no stranger to producing champions, although until Tepin came along, they were of the Canadian variety. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

“Any time you do anything like this for the first time, it’s special,” Casse said. “It was that way when we won our first Sovereign Awards, and it was certainly a proud moment to win the Eclipse. Of course, I realize the difference is the Sovereign Awards are for Canada, while the Eclipse is for racing in all of North America.”

Casse also trains Gary Barber’s Catch a Glimpse, the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf whose single first-place Eclipse Award vote kept Songbird from being a unanimous champion in the division.

“Gary texted me, ‘Did you see that?’ ” Casse said. “I answered him with, ‘I didn’t think my mom had a vote.’ ”

The other first-timer among the veteran class was John Sadler, a Californian through and through who made his first national splash in 1985 by beating Preakness winner Snow Chief with the lightning-quick filly Melair. Only a perfect season by Tiffany Lass kept Melair from being a champion for Sadler, who was 29 at the time and already had been training for six years.

Thirty years later, Sadler finally got his 3-year-old filly champ. Stellar Wind, owned by Pete and Kosta Hronis, received more than twice as many votes as runner-up I’m a Chatterbox. Both fillies had long, accomplished seasons in 2015, but it was Stellar Wind’s near miss in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff that sealed the deal.

“Something like this moves my spirit up a lot, really energizes me,” Sadler said. “I’ve had a lot of great horses and great success, but this one thing really made me feel great.”

Like La Verdad and Tepin, Stellar Wind is being prepared for a 2016 campaign, although Sadler has yet to map out a definite schedule.

“I almost wanted to be able to say I had that champion in the barn before I even began thinking seriously about this year,” Sadler said with a laugh. “It was almost like I didn’t want to jinx her chances.”

As it turned out, there was little chance of that.