01/16/2014 3:40PM

Jay Hovdey: The champions among champions

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Barbara D. Livingston
Rachel Alexandra (right) had an incomparable campaign as a 3-year-old filly, winning among other races against males, the Woodward against older horses.

The Eclipse Awards to be handed out Saturday night at Gulfstream Park are all the same size, and only the statue for Horse of the Year is plated gold. But for argument’s sake, let’s say there are champions, then there are champions. As an exercise in contentious nostalgia, here are one fan’s selections as the all-time greatest in each of the categories since the Eclipse Awards were first presented in 1971.

2-year-old filly – The knee-jerk response is always Ruffian, when she raced through 1974 undefeated, faster and faster, in five memorable starts. Four of them were stakes, which included her 12 3/4-length cruise over three opponents in Saratoga’s Spinaway. A minor fracture in a hind leg ended her season early and prevented her from adding the Frizette.

Take a look, however, at what La Prevoyante did to her generation in 1972. The daughter of Buckpasser raced 12 times and won them all. Yes, six were in her native Canada, but the other six were all south of the border: the Schuylerville and Spinaway at Saratoga, the Matron and Frizette at Belmont, the Selima at Laurel, and the Gardenia at Garden State.

Honorable mention: Meadow Star in 1990 for her flashy 7 for 7.

[Eclipse Awards 2013: Watch Saturday's Eclipse Awards dinner live]

2-year-old male – How do you choose between the spectacular Europeans, Arazi (1991) and Johannesburg (2001), or Favorite Trick, the undefeated 1997 Horse of the Year?

Easy. You don’t have to as long as there is Secretariat. The brilliance of his 2-year-old campaign in 1972 is sometimes lost in the glow of his subsequent 3-year-old campaign, but it is a stand-alone work of art. Big Red ran nine times, green as grass in losing his debut and later disqualified by the unforgiving New York stewards after dominating the Champagne. The rest he won with aplomb, including an eight-length tour-de-force in the Laurel Futurity.

Honorable mention: Affirmed, 1977, for beating Alydar four times.

3-year-old filly – Again Ruffian’s name jumps up for her 1975 domination of New York’s filly events, and rightfully so. Few Thoroughbreds have reached into the heart of the public as she did, even before her tragic end after her match with Foolish Pleasure. Who is to say Ruffian would not have gone on to win races like the Haskell and the Woodward?

That is exactly what Rachel Alexandra did, in 2009, when she also won the Kentucky Oaks by more than 20 lengths, the Mother Goose by nearly 20 lengths, and the Preakness Stakes over Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird. Decision to Rachel, with honorable mentions to Desert Vixen in 1973 (9 for 11) and Serena’s Song in 1995, when she beat colts in the Haskell and Jim Beam.

3-year-old male – Since the ultimate accomplishment of any 3-year-old is winning the Triple Crown there are only three candidates in this division, with the tiebreaker based on what they did after sweeping the Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes.

Seattle Slew raced once more in 1977 and lost. Affirmed made four post-Triple Crown appearances in 1978, won the Jim Dandy, lost the Travers on a DQ, and could not cope with older horses like Seattle Slew and Exceller in the fall.

Secretariat, on the other hand, defeated older horses in the Marlboro Cup, the Man o’ War, and the Canadian International, erasing the memory of losses in the Whitney and the Woodward.

Older female – This one boils down to which of Zenyatta’s three championship seasons a person prefers: her 6 for 6 in 2008 climaxed in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic; her 5 for 5 in 2009 capped by the Breeders’ Cup Classic; or her 5 for 6 in 2010 ending with her narrow loss in the Classic at Churchill Downs. The vote here is for 2010 because she was older, carried more weight, and left her California comfort zone twice.

Very honorable mention to Lady’s Secret and her 10 for 16 Horse of the Year campaign of 1986.

Older male – Toughest race on the card, but it’s hard to get past Cigar’s 10-for-10 cross-country Horse of the Year marathon of 1995. Unless, that is, you prefer Forego’s heavy lifting of 1976, when he never carried less than 130 pounds in five major handicaps, including 137 in the Marlboro Cup.

Necessary nods to Spectacular Bid’s 9 for 9 in 1980, Affirmed’s domination of 1979 after a slow start, and Alysheba’s battling 1987, when he won six of the country’s best races by a nose, two necks, a half-length twice, and three-quarters.

The awards for turf horses and sprinters always were intended to reward specialists, but the best of them stand scrutiny from all angles, as Wise Dan continues to prove. Among males John Henry won an unprecedented four turf titles (the top choice here is 1981), while All Along needed only the fall of 1983 – when she took the Rothmans, the Turf Classic, and the Washington, D.C. International after winning the Arc de Triomphe – to prove she was the best filly or mare ever to race on American grass.

As for the mixed bag of Eclipse champion sprinters, now divided by gender, it’s hard to separate such apples and oranges as Groovy, Chinook Pass, Precisionist, Safely Kept, and Housebuster. But if I had to live or die by one horse at his championship best giving six unflinching furlongs when it counted most, I would take Kona Gold every time.

John Murray More than 1 year ago
Jay, Thank you for putting things into perspective, I had no idea that All Along was so impressive, forgot about her winning L'Arc d'T and then running big, unusual. Also La Prevoyante, and as Howard Scwartz mentioned below, any list without Buckpasser...but he and the good Dr were my personal fav's in an era of very good racing for NAmerica. I will have to reconsider Kona Gold again, but that's what journalism is all about, nice to see such spirited debate about Ruf, PE, Zen and RA for best NA mares. Jay, healthy discourse is good for the sport, as evidenced below, somehow, you gotta work out this paywall situation for the DRF, the chat is too good to risk losing, good luck in 2014.
Jackson Jackson More than 1 year ago
Yeah , RA was all out to beat Macho Bull a horse that Life Is Sweet finished 10 lengths in front of in the Hollywood Gold Cup that year. Macho Bull ran last in the BC Dirt Mile that year.
Jon Turcotte More than 1 year ago
How many times did Zenyatta beat males on dirt? The answer: 0 How many times did she win or even run on slop: 0 How many world stakes, track or world records did Zenyatta set for time? 0 Oh wait, she ran the fastest 1 16 on a surface that existed for a whopping 3 year. A surface that heavily favored closers and wide trips. Now that's some record-breaking history. With all her traveling (cough) quick turnaround wheeling back (cough) tests under sloppy conditions (cough) races against males during the year (0 again and cough again) I can see why people think she is better than Secretariat. COUGH!! I wonder why?
Crystal David More than 1 year ago
If you are going to dog a horse's accomplishments, at least know your facts. Zenyatta set 3 stakes records and 1 track record in her career. Pretty good for a come from behinder like she was who was rarely even out of second gear at the wire..... I personally haven't heard anyone say she was better than Secretariat, however he lost far more races than she did and to "ordinary" horses, never ran past 3 and never "carried weight". Zenyatta won under 129 twice. She was a GREAT race horse and deserves much credit. He was also great and there is room for many to be bestowed that honor without taking away from any other....
Howard Schwartz More than 1 year ago
Any list without Buckpasser is incomplete. 5 years ago I had the honor of speaking to Mr. Baeaza about him Dr. Fager and Damascus. 3 great ones. And he was a hall of fame gentleman.
Jordan More than 1 year ago
Buckpasser was before the Eclipse era. Jay's list was from 1971 to the present.
John Murray More than 1 year ago
I hope Baeza is doing well, it must have been a delight to talk with him about, those three immortals, what a great opportunity of a lifetime. Did he have an opinion on which one was the best?
Brandon Layer More than 1 year ago
GENUINE RISK gets my vote for 3 year old filly. She WON THE KENTUCKY DERBY and was 2nd in the Preakness AND Belmont. Let's see Rachel or any other 3 year old filly do that. That's an amazing feat for a filly.
Hail No More than 1 year ago
Jennie was incredible, one of my all time favs, too :-)
Jon Turcotte More than 1 year ago
I loved GR but seriously? Not only did Rachel win the Preakness breaking from stall 14, while dueling and wide, but she also ran the fastest race of the year in the slop in the Haksell, broke Ruffian's records while being eased in the Mother Goose, and sealed the year with a ridiculously tough race against older males in the Woodward, running faster than any other horse since the race moved to Saratoga. Did Genuine Risk do that? Lay off the hater aid
Hail No More than 1 year ago
What are you talking about, I stated I am a fan of GR, did not agree with comments about Ra
Jackson Jackson More than 1 year ago
Ridiculously tough race against older males ? Six horse race with nary a horse that won more than one Gr. I race lifetime. All out to beat Macho Bull The BC dirt mile last place finisher. Life Is Sweet finished 10 lengths in front of Macho Bull in the Hollywood Gold Cup a few months before RA got whipped 30 times to barely hold him off ! LOL.
Kimberly Shugars More than 1 year ago
Jay, Nice list of heavy hitters you've put together here but, really, You cant mention Alysheba without mentioning that other son of Alydar, Criminal Type..What a spectacular season he had in 1990 at 5 to win champion older horse and Horse of the year. It broke my heart when he died just before he was set to return to the US when pentioned.
nicholas More than 1 year ago
Actually the most impressive thing about secretariat was that as a three year old he won two grade I turf races against older horses -- the man'o war in track record time for a turf mile and a half 224 and 4/5-- and the Canadian international -- always thought his most impressive dirt race wasn't the Belmont but the Marlboro cup beating riva ridge in 145 and change for a one turn mile and an eighth-- one can only imagine how good he would have been as a 4 year old--simply put he was the best thoroughbred to look through a bridle-- only other horses that could be in the conversation are dr fager, kelso (they were before 1971) and John Henry ( won jc gold cup on dirt)
ENAMMELD More than 1 year ago
Jay Hovdey: There are many horses that I would like to get the life time charts for but don't know where as they contain priceless data. Any help from anyone would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance.
Jordan More than 1 year ago
Drf's Champions book has the pps of just about every champion thoroughbred since the 1890s. It is invaluable for racing fans.
ENAMMELD More than 1 year ago
With respect, Older Male, I would at least give Dr. Fager an honorable mention. Four awards to arguably the best miler ever. Nice article, and I respect the fact we all are entitled to our opinions. Good day sir.
Jon Turcotte More than 1 year ago
Dr. Fager was SENSATIONAL! Certainly one of the greatest ever.
Dac More than 1 year ago
again once it again, this list is from 1971 to current..Dr Fager ran earlier
ENAMMELD More than 1 year ago
sorry I didn't see that. The doctors last year was 1968. thanks
Thomas MD More than 1 year ago
No mention of Ghostzapper?
Jordan More than 1 year ago
For a 4 race campaign, with only 2 grade 1s? His 2004 season stacks up way light next to Bid, Affirmed, and Cigar's best seasons.
Jon Turcotte More than 1 year ago
Potential was all there but not enough starts. Certainly brilliant, though.
John Moore More than 1 year ago
Ghostzapper was a versatile horse. His dual w Saint Liam in the Met Mile was brilliant! Best beyer in last 20 years. Should be best we have seen so far in the 21st century IMHO.