01/16/2014 4:40PM

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.