12/28/2016 4:36PM

Hovdey: Of lies, damned lies, and Eclipse finalists

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Mathea Kelley/Dubai Racing Club
California Chrome likely will come home with the Eclipse Horse of the Year trophy, but it's also likely his connections will come up short in their individual categories.

When it came to the annual Eclipse Award for outstanding owner, there once were some creative choices. Juddmonte Farms won in 1992 with a small, select group of North American stakes runners before anyone over here could put Prince Khalid’s face to his stable’s name. Bert and Diana Firestone were honored in 1980 when their Genuine Risk became the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby in 65 years. And in 1990, Frances Genter won because her colt Unbridled won the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and because she was Frances Genter.

During the first 28 years of the Eclipse Awards, from 1971 to 1998, the award for outstanding owner went to the people who owned the Horse of the Year a total of 10 times. They included Mr. and Mrs. E.E. Fogelson (she was Greer Garson), Meadow Stable (as outstanding owner/breeder), Harbor View Farm, Dotsam Stable, Mr. and Mrs. Eugene V. Klein, Allen Paulson, and Carolyn Hine.

This made a certain amount of sense. The golden trophy that goes to the Horse of the Year is nice, and the owner displays it proudly. But recognition for the individuals behind the champion has a way of sealing the deal, as well as acknowledging the journey that took them to the top of the heap. It doesn’t need to happen automatically, but when it does, there are few who would object.

Since 1998, however, the award for outstanding owner has gone to the people who owned the Horse of the Year exactly once – in 2015, when Ahmed Zayat and his family were honored alongside their Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah – while of the 17 other ownerships winning the award (there was one tie), 12 have been the leader in terms of either purses or wins, or both. What happened?

Beats me. But at some point, a conscious separation took place, as Eclipse voters veered away from the subjective intangibles of what they thought could represent an outstanding owner. Instead, they decided it was their job more often than not to simply rubber stamp the statistical tables provided in the voter information package, as if numbers tell the whole story.

When this voter arrived at the outstanding owner category for 2016 (voting deadline is next Wednesday), the obvious candidates were there at the top of the earnings table. There was Juddmonte (thank you, Arrogate), Ken and Sarah Ramsey, Godolphin, and Paul Reddam, who won the Kentucky Derby for the second time in five years.

A deeper dive for possible choices led to Charles Fipke, whose stable enjoyed a banner year led by Forever Unbridled; Hronis Racing, home of Stellar Wind and a growing brood of stakes runners; and the hardy perennial John Oxley, whose likely 2-year-old champ Classic Empire leads the early Kentucky Derby debate.

Then it occurred to me. Why not consider for outstanding owner the ownership of the likely Horse of the Year, ol’ California Whatshisname? They at least deserved a look in light of his ambitious international campaign. And it seemed fitting, given that the raucous atmosphere around the Dumb Ass partnership of his younger days had evolved into the more serene stewardship of California Chrome LLC, a stable name in more ways than one.

The statistical table in the Eclipse Awards package was consulted to see where California Chrome’s ownership ranked. Chrome himself was listed as the leading North American earner of 2016 with $8,130,000 in total take, so it stood to reason that California Chrome LLC would be close to the top.

Nope. Not only was Chrome’s ownership absent from the top spot (that was Juddmonte, with $7.2 million), California Chrome LLC was AWOL among the 26 names listed.

The answer to the puzzle was painfully clear. Turns out that the $6 million first-place prize from the Dubai World Cup was credited to the horse but not to the owner, trainer, or jockey.

This has happened in the past, most notably in 2013, when Joel Rosario would have topped the jockey earnings list had his purse from Animal Kingdom’s Dubai World Cup victory been counted. Javier Castellano won the Eclipse. Official statements in the past have worried that such huge, single-race paydays can skew the standings and confuse Eclipse voters.

Presumably, with the help of clear footnotes and transparent tabulation, Eclipse voters can decide for themselves how seriously they should take money won by North Americans in Dubai, or Hong Kong, or Royal Ascot. And what is the appreciable difference these days between the $6 million won by California Chrome in Dubai and the $3.3 million won by Arrogate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic?

Julien Leparoux’s ride on Tepin in the Queen Anne at Ascot was a marvel, as was Victor Espinoza’s display of athletic prowess in the World Cup on a saddle that had slipped to California Chrome’s hips. Their accomplishments should not be dismissed so lightly, along with the father-son training teams of Mark and Norman Casse and Art and Alan Sherman.

This is not meant to be a campaign for California Chrome LLC, which is comprised of co-breeder Perry Martin and a syndicate formed by Taylor Made Farm. Laying claim to California Chrome has been its own considerable reward.

Hopefully, though, the Eclipse process eventually will give its voters the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their ability to interpret statistics, while at the same time giving the players full credit where credit is due.