12/23/2014 4:05PM

Hovdey: Only heavyheads should wear two crowns

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There are only 281 people with a say in who wins the Eclipse Awards, a fact that makes the appeal of this column limited. Still, if you’ve got nothing better to do …

It should be noted that the obvious oddity in the likely results of this year’s voting will be that the reigning two-time Horse of the Year will not be a champion of anything – the undefeated, reigning two-time Horse of the Year, who was perfect in his four 2014 starts.

Wise Dan, that grand old man, won twice in the spring, recovered from colic surgery, then won twice more in the late summer and early fall before a small fracture began to appear at the base of the cannon bone of his right foreleg, ending his campaign. There was a huge hole in the Breeders’ Cup where Wise Dan should have been, but with Charlie LoPresti in charge there is a better than decent chance he will be able to run again, for which the racing nation is grateful.

Such a vacuum is hard to fill, and many seek the crown. Forego presented a similar scenario in 1977 when he was trying to be Horse of the Year for a fourth straight season. Plagued by bad ankles, he still managed to answer the bell seven times, winning three of six handicaps in which he carried an average of 135.5 pounds. It took a Triple Crown winner – Seattle Slew – to knock Forego off his Horse of the Year perch.

If voters are consistent (stop laughing), Javier Castellano has the fast inside track to a second consecutive Eclipse Award as champion jockey. He will top the earnings table again this year, finish a close second to Russell Baze in total wins, and be closely associated with Breeders’ Cup winner Dayatthespa, the likely champion turf female.

But how about at least a nod toward the guy who ended up riding no less than three possible champions? That would be Victor Espinoza, the man in the saddle on California Chrome all year long who also rode American Pharoah to his wins in the Del Mar Futurity and FrontRunner, and Take Charge Brandi to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and the Starlet.

One would think that the nation’s leading trainer, with a New York stable crammed full of stakes winners, would have at least one Eclipse Award winner among them. Believe it or not, Todd Pletcher, once again the runaway leader in purses and with eight individual Grade 1 race winners in the barn, might have to sit there at the Eclipse Awards dinner and clap for horses handled by other guys all night long.

His lone chance is Palace Malice, whose otherwise flawless season ended with a clunker in the Whitney. A number of observers have pointed out the recent inclination to go all fine-print on the process and declare open season on the older male category from all corners, especially the male turf horse category. The trend gave grass specialists Wise Dan and Gio Ponti crossover awards in recent years, and has put grass standout Main Sequence in the conversation this year for champion older male as well.

The blame for the mutation of categories rests squarely with the synthetic era. Not only did synthetics take the winners of races like the Hollywood Gold Cup, Santa Anita Handicap, and Pacific Classic out of the traditional dirt schedule that determined older male champion, the plastic and fiber tracks also allowed grass horses to perform well enough in what had been traditionally dirt races, thus artificially juicing up their “older horse” r é sum é s.

The turf category always was intended to be a consolation prize for an older horse (and later female) who couldn’t quite cut it on the dirt. Daily Racing Form began honoring a turf horse in 1953, while the Thoroughbred Racing Associations did not adopt the category until 1967. The bar was extremely high for a turf horse to be chosen as older male champion as well. How high? Thanks for asking.

Round Table, the turf champ of 1957, started 20 times in 1958 when he took both awards, as well as Horse of the Year. On the dirt he won the San Fernando, the Santa Anita Maturity, the San Antonio, the Santa Anita Handicap, the Gulfstream Park Handicap, the Caliente Handicap, the Argonaut Handicap, and the Hawthorne Gold Cup. On the turf he won the Arch Ward, the Laurance Armour, the Arlington Handicap, and was beaten half a length in the United Nations Handicap while giving 17 pounds to the winner.

Fort Marcy, a pure turf horse, triggered a revolution in the racing awards process when he was voted 1970’s top older horse and Horse of the Year by the Racing Form , while the TRA went traditional and picked dirt horse Nodouble for older male and 3-year-old Personality for Horse of the Year.

So traumatic was the split that peace broke out and the Eclipse Awards were born the following year, with the National Turf Writers Association joining the Form and the TRA in picking champions. Since then, at least until the dawn of synthetics, it took a very special horse to win both older male and male turf. That horse was named John Henry.