01/14/2015 1:40PM

Hovdey: Trainer Eclipse, not by the numbers

Barbara D. Livingston
Chad Brown hoists one of the three Breeders' Cup trophies he won at the 2014 event, but will that accomplishment be enough for him win an Eclipse Award trophy Saturday night?

Chad Brown said he’d be wearing his tuxedo, just in case. As a first-time finalist for outstanding trainer, Brown figures it’s best to put a good foot forward Saturday night at Gulfstream Park when the industry convenes for the Eclipse Awards dinner, advertised as black tie optional at $400 a pop.

“It’s not something you set out to do, win an Eclipse Award,” said Brown, 36. “I’m not even sure how the voting works. I don’t know, do I even have a shot?”

Up against Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert, with nine awards between them, Brown is a longshot even after crafting a career-best year, a likely champion in Dayatthespa, and three Breeders’ Cup winners in 2014. But just in case, the trainer gave some thought to what his mentor, Bobby Frankel, said in a similar situation. Frankel won the award four straight years, 2000-2003.

“The help, the help, the help,” Brown recited. “Bobby never let me forget how important the people are who work for you. Any success you have is because of them. Treat them well and pay them better than anyone. I know he paid me a lot more than I was worth.”

:: 2014 ECLIPSE AWARDS: Full list of finalists and profiles

Since 2000, Eclipse Award voters rarely have been able to get past the purse numbers in choosing their champion trainer. Only Frankel (2000), Bill Mott (2011), and Dale Romans (2012) have broken the spell cast by the top-dollar guys, and those guys have been Todd Pletcher, Steve Asmussen, and Frankel himself.

The trend seems to be symptomatic of the digit-hungry modern media that devours raw stats and lends them weight beyond their subjective worth. It also runs contrary to the first three decades of trainer awards. Six of the 10 trainers with seasons honored by Eclipse Awards in the 1990s did not top the standings. Ditto the 1980s, when six of the 10 Eclipse Awards went to trainers other than the purse leader. And the first batch of award winners were all over the map.

It made perfect sense to give Lucien Laurin the award for the 1972 season, even though 1971 Eclipse winner Charlie Whittingham once again led the money list. Laurin won because he trained 2-year-old Secretariat to be 1972 Horse of the Year and Riva Ridge to win the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont.

In 1973, Laurin won the Triple Crown with Secretariat and as well as a division championship for Riva Ridge. So, of course, Allen Jerkens won the Eclipse Award, primarily for the achievement of beating Secretariat twice with two different horses. And because he was Allen Jerkens.

Maybe Laurin was penalized for allowing the greatest horse who ever lived lose three races. Perhaps Secretariat made training look too easy. The same could not be said of Forego, the giant son of Forli with ankles of glass, which is why trainer Sherrill Ward got the Eclipse Award in 1974, the first of Forego’s three Horse of the Year campaigns, instead of Frank Martin, who rang up a near-record purse total.

That was cool. The popular Ward was nearing the end of his career, and the Eclipse made for a fitting valedictory. It should be noted, however, that Forego’s subsequent Horse of the Year season in 1975 was every bit as impressive, but Ward was ignored by Eclipse voters in favor of Steve DiMauro, who finished seventh in the national purse standings and won his honor on the strength of champions Wajima and Dearly Precious.

By 1976 it was pretty well trending that the trainer who topped the national purse standings was no cinch when it came to the Eclipse. That year, Jack Van Berg raised the ante and became the first trainer since 1928 to lead the tables in both purses and wins. Not good enough, said the voters. They preferred Lazaro Barrera’s work with Derby and Belmont winner Bold Forbes, among others.

Barrera was the sixth different trainer to win the Eclipse in its first six years. But for the rest of the 1970s it was Lazaro’s world, courtesy of Affirmed and the rest of a national stable that was undeniably on fire. Barrera won four straight Eclipse Awards, an accomplishment that went unmatched until the turn of the current century.

The variety of winners in the 80s and 90s can be blamed, in large part, on Wayne Lukas and the undeniable fatigue that came with his 14 national championships during a span of 15 years, from 1983 to 1997. Lukas won “only” four Eclipse Awards during that stretch, leaving plenty of room for creative voting.

The same voter fatigue has not set in with Pletcher, a six-time Eclipse winner who has just won his ninth national money title in the last 11 years. Baffert had Bayern and American Pharoah in 2014, while Brown had those three winners at the Breeders’ Cup going for him, which was nice. But if Charlie LoPresti couldn’t get an Eclipse sniff for his work with Wise Dan, or John Shirreffs for whatever he did to make Zenyatta be Zenyatta, chances are Pletcher and his $22.4 million in stable earnings will carry the night. Again.