01/07/2011 2:39PM

Memo to Eclipse voters: December wins count, too


Even chronic complainers like this one couldn’t find much to squawk about in the announcement last Thursday of the 36 finalists for the 12 equine Eclipse Awards that will be handed out in Miami Beach on Jan. 17. In a year when only the Horse of the Year and perhaps the male sprinter titles seem to be in doubt, no horse deserving a divisional title was omitted, and any lingering debate involves marginal quibbles about distant second- or third-place finishes within those divisions.

The two most prominent of those quibbles – the exclusion of Switch as a finalist for female sprinter and Comma to the Top for champion 2-year-old – stem from the same ongoing issue: the lack of recognition for the winners of the year’s last four Grade 1 races – the Hollywood Futurity, Hollywood Starlet, and Santa Anita’s Malibu and La Brea – because they are run in mid-to-late December.

By then, past performances have already been mailed to voters, and they do not include the results of these races. In cases where the eventual winners of those four races have not previously won major events, even their incomplete records may not be included in the voting package. While updated past performances and results are provided online in an attempt to remedy this situation, it is unclear how many voters factor in the results of these races. Given how many voters reveal their ballots before some of these races have even been run – I counted at least a dozen self-published ballots from turf writers and bloggers before last month’s La Brea and Malibu had even been draw – it is probably safe to say that many do not.

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In the 2-year-old division, the third finalist behind Uncle Mo and Boys At Tosconova was a close call. There is nothing unworthy about the voters’ selection of To Honor and Serve, the Nashua and Remsen winner, nor would the retired summer sensation Kantharos have been a terrible choice. Comma to the Top, however, won more stakes than either of them and was the only Grade 1 winner among them – but not until a week before Christmas.

Switch has an even stronger squawk. I had her second behind likely winner Dubai Majesty on my female sprinter ballot, but she failed to be voted a finalist, finishing behind both Champagne d’Oro and Rightly So. Switch beat Blind Luck, the slam-dunk 3-year-old champion, in the Hollywood Oaks and was second to Zenyatta in the Lady’s Secret. You could argue that those races shouldn’t count for a sprinting title, but then she ran second to Dubai Majesty in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint and then won the La Brea – on Dec. 26.

Switch and Champagne d’Oro met twice, and Switch came out on top both times: They ran second and fourth in the F&M Sprint, and then Switch won the La Brea with Champagne d’Oro sixth. Yet voters ranked Champagne d’Oro higher, probably because as of mid-December Switch had not won a Grade 1 race.

Smiling Tiger ran second by a whisker in the Malibu the same day as the La Brea. He was going to be a male sprinter finalist even without that race, on the strength of his Bing Crosby and Ancient Title victories, but suppose for a moment he had won the Malibu. It would have given him three Grade 1’s for the year, giving him a stronger case for title consideration against Majesticperfection and Big Drama, who won only a single Grade 1 race each. Would enough people have noticed, or had they already cast their votes?

Part of the solution here is for Eclipse voters to be a little more patient in choosing and announcing their votes, but it may also make sense for Santa Anita to reconsider the scheduling of the Malibu and La Brea, and not just for purposes of Eclipse recognition. The two races account for 40 percent of the nation’s Grade 1 sprints for 3-year-olds – the only others are the Prioress at Belmont and the King’s Bishop and Test at Saratoga, all run in July and August. Why are the other two, the only ones outside New York, not run until the last week of December?

The answer is that they are the first leg of the Strub and La Canada series of races, and at one time provided a seven-furlong stepping-stone to longer winter races for 4-year-olds. Those series, however, no longer are destination races, so there is no particularly good reason to keep them in their current calendar slot.

The California racing schedule is likely to change dramatically in the years ahead, with the closing of Hollywood Park widely considered inevitable, providing an opportunity to rethink the entire organization of stakes racing at Santa Anita and Del Mar as those tracks pick up additional racing dates. The Malibu and La Brea, as this year’s high-quality fields indicated, remain strong events, but could be even more significant if repositioned as part of a new California racing calendar.