01/07/2015 5:29PM

Hovdey: Still some suspense for Horse of the Year

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Barbara D. Livingston
If Horse of the Year votes for the top two 3-year-olds get split, then Main Sequence could slip in the back door to get the big Eclipse prize.

Hats off to the 29 horses and 14 individuals who separated themselves from the crowd in 2014 and ended up Eclipse Award finalists, as announced far and wide Wednesday.

At this point, and for purposes of harmless publicity, they all shall be considered equal under the Eclipse Award banner, even though some are certainly more equal than others. If you don’t think so, check out the seating chart for the dinner at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 17.

There was a time (lord, don’t start a sentence like that) that the idea of an Eclipse Award “finalist” was foreign to the industry’s tongue. Once the votes were cast, you either won an Eclipse Award or you didn’t. If you did, you showed up at the dinner, a very glitzy affair, with John Forsythe, a man born in a tuxedo, up there on stage dishing out comfy one-liners and introductions. There were no surprises and no blood spilled, unless you count Bertha Wright’s entertaining tirade at the dinner honoring her 1990 Horse of the Year, Criminal Type.

By then, the Horse of the Year announcement was being kept a closely held secret until the envelope was unsealed at the end of the evening, while the other categories were already made known. This gave the dinner some buzz because for a run of several years, there were some contests perceived as up in the air, like John Henry v. Slew o’ Gold, Ferdinand v. Theatrical, and Alysheba v. Personal Ensign.

Most of the time, the conclusions were foregone. If you didn’t see Sunday Silence, A.P. Indy, Holy Bull, and Cigar coming as Horse of the Year, then I hope you enjoyed your coma. But there was always a chance of a close race, and if the envelope drama was good enough for Horse of the Year, it was good enough for champion female sprinter and steeplechase as well. Also, it would sell more dinner tickets.

This time around, there will be a teasing reveal earlier in the evening when the 3-year-old male champion is announced, be he California Chrome or Bayern. If Main Sequence doubles up with both the turf male trophy, for which he is a deserving lock, and older male award, for which he seems to be the fashionable choice, then the Horse of the Year announcement should have folks ditching their desserts to pay close heed.

The inkling here is that Bayern and California Chrome will gobble up the majority of the Horse of the Year votes, but the split between the two could give the Main Sequence lobby a squeaking chance to take the top prize. (The last time this happened was 1972, when Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, and James Caan were all Oscar finalists as supporting actors but divided the “The Godfather” vote and lost the golden dingus to Joel Grey for “Cabaret.” It wasn’t personal, though. Just business.)

Before history washes over the rest of the fine performances from 2014, a word about those sadly overlooked by the finite Eclipse voting system. Among them:

◗ Sunset Glow, a stout second to the exciting Lady Eli in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, won the Sorrento and the Del Mar Debutante, and was second at Royal Ascot – England, that is – in the Albany Stakes. It was a deep division, embracing all manner of surfaces. Somebody had to be fourth-best.

◗ Iotapa, a daughter of Afleet Alex, paid the price for a California-centric season that included wins in the Vanity, the Santa Maria, and the Clement L. Hirsch. Her only poor race was in the Humana Distaff at Churchill Downs, while she showed up big time at the Breeders’ Cup, losing second by a nose behind the victorious Untapable in the Distaff.

◗ Victor Espinoza would have been a worthy finalist among jockeys, and not just because of his association with California Chrome. By the end of the Eclipse evening, he might be able to say “that’s my horse” three times, given the chances of Take Charge Brandi and American Pharoah in the traditional 2-year-old divisions. Espinoza also won a stakes at Royal Ascot with 2-year-old male finalist Hootenanny, and hung out with the queen.

Blood + ink = writing Eclipses

A dime’s worth of research reveals that full brothers have never won Eclipse Awards. There have been full sisters (the turf champs Banks Hill and Intercontinental) and grandmother-granddaughters (Personal Ensign and Storm Flag Flying).

Then came the Clancy brothers, Joe and Sean, both by Joe Clancy Sr. out of Ruth Clancy and raised to know which end did what from the day they could stand and nurse.

Sean Clancy, a former professional steeplechase rider with limbs miraculously intact, won an Eclipse Award for his 2009 story about the legacy of Hall of Famer trainer Sidney Watters. Now Joe, the tall one, gets his own horse for the trophy case, having been honored for his 2014 story about the Preakness Stakes victory of California Chrome. If racing fans still read, it’s because people like the Clancy brothers continue to write. Nice going, Joe.