01/23/2017 2:10PM

Hovdey: A night of high notes ends on a sour one

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At first glance, the Eclipse Awards ceremonies held at Gulfstream Park last Saturday night were a very traditional, by-the-numbers replay of dinners gone by. There was the gracious, personable host juggling introductions with a handful of thin jokes. There was the collection of video highlights, many of them flashing past with daunting speed. And there were the acceptance speeches, dizzy in their variety, from the raucously joyful to cool and classy, capped by an off-the-cuff ramble that channeled the spirits of both Don Rickles and Professor Irwin Corey.

I began the evening, though, wondering about a show that opened by asking for more money from people who already were paying $425 a ticket. There’s a time and place for everything, but apparently there’s always time for an auction, in this case a credit for a flight on a luxury jet. The cause was Thoroughbred aftercare, a problem that continues to be addressed piecemeal by an industry that is slowly coming to terms with its most embarrassing issue: the end use of its living product.

Anyway, Ken Ramsey and B. Wayne Hughes each ponied up $41,000 in couch change, and for the rest of the evening, when there was a lull, someone on stage would say, “$82,000, wow!” and the crowd would be theirs.

Later, while accepting Beholder’s fourth Eclipse Award, Hughes cringed at yet another replay of her victorious Breeders’ Cup Distaff from last November, worried with each viewing that it looked as if Songbird might have beaten his mare in an epic race “with a winner but no loser.”

Rick Porter, who has yet to surrender to the cancer that has plagued him for the past year, was equally sublime in accepting Songbird’s second Eclipse Award, crediting his filly in no small amount for the strength to persevere. Porter was generous in spreading credit for the filly’s success to the group he brought onstage, including trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, bloodstock adviser Tom McGreevy, and racing manager Victoria Keith. Thankfully, Porter passed the microphone to Keith, whose tribute to her boss was the perfect cherry on the Songbird chapter of the evening.

How the 2016 Distaff thriller was not selected at the NTRA’s Moment of the Year is a mystery, but only until it is pointed out that the award is based on the results of fans voting online. That is where the Chromies live, so it was California Chrome’s victory in the 2016 Dubai World Cup taking top honors.

A good thing, too, as it turned out. The presentation of the Moment of the Year award was the only time Art Sherman had a chance to stand alone in the spotlight, and he was typically heartfelt in his praise and affection for California Chrome. After more than 60 years in the game, the trainer still gets goose bumps when he recalls standing on the winner’s podium at Meydan and hearing the “Star-Spangled Banner” well up through the desert night. Not bad, as moments go.

Sherman was among a large group onstage at the end of the evening for the Horse of the Year presentation to California Chrome. Perry Martin, the co-breeder and majority owner of Chrome who accepted the award, could have followed any number of stellar examples set earlier in the evening and would have done just fine.

He could have tapped into the blissful wonder of Robert “Bat” Masterson at his remarkable mare Tepin, who dazzled the British at Royal Ascot and turned the head of the queen.

Martin could have taken a lesson from the three increasingly humble appearances of Garrett O’Rourke, racing manager of Juddmonte Farms in America, who collected trophies for 3-year-old male Arrogate, turf male Flintshire, and finally as outstanding owner.

Martin could not be expected to display the disarming charm of Susan Chu, owner of champion male sprinter Drefong, whose first appearance on an Eclipse Awards stage was spent in rhapsodic appreciation of how much horses mean to her family. Still, he could have taken his cue from Joe Ciaglia, the leader of the Champagne Room syndicate, who celebrated their champion 2-year-old filly with a brief but emotional recollection of his journey in the game and an embrace of his longtime friend and the filly’s trainer, Peter Eurton.

In fact, all Perry Martin had to do was follow the lead of Perry Martin, who earlier in the evening delivered a thoroughly satisfying acceptance of the older dirt male award for California Chrome. Not only did Martin hit all the right notes, he recited the key supporting players in the Chrome cast as if he appreciated the smallest details of their roles, from groom Raul Rodriguez and his wife, Florentina, to assistant trainer Anna Wells, to exercise rider Dihigi Gladney, “whose smile lights up the track,” as Martin put it.

Instead, Perry Martin of Alpine, Wyo., became Scary Martin of Yuba City, or Yucca Flat, or wherever. After saying “ditto” to his earlier comments – a perfect stopping point – Martin for some reason felt obligated to fill time with a disjointed recitation of petty grievances more suited for open mic night at The Happy Viking.

California Chrome was the heavy favorite to win Horse of the Year (he got 202 votes to Arrogate’s 40), so a proper speech should have been part of Martin’s packing, along with the rented tux. Finally, the band played him off, after which partner Frank Taylor of Taylor Made Farm stepped up with a few kind words in an effort to douse the flames.

Give Martin credit, though. For the rest of the evening, people had something to talk about. And on Saturday, he may have a chance to embellish his comments, or not, if California Chrome can turn the tables on Arrogate in the inaugural running of the $12 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park. Then again, maybe it’s best to let the horse do the talking.