01/13/2016 1:10PM

Simon: Eclipse standards could use retooling


Maybe it’s time to establish rules for the Eclipse Awards. In other words, after 45 years, it would be nice if guidelines were drawn as to who is eligible to be on the ballot. A system that worked years ago might not work as well now given the paucity of starts horses make today compared with when the Eclipse Awards first started, while the establishment of the Breeders’ Cup has clearly changed how voters view the championship landscape.

Times and circumstances change, and how champions are determined should be examined periodically to ensure it reflects historical relevance and current realities.

As presently structured – if “structure” is the right word – a horse needs to make just one start in the United States or Canada to be eligible in Eclipse Award voting. That criterion is the barest of the bare, allowing horses – many over the years – who started only once here to be voted champions.

In 2015 balloting, for example, finalists Golden Horn and Found each made a solitary North American start last year. Found won the Breeders’ Cup Turf and is a finalist in both the 3-year-old filly and female turf categories. Golden Horn did not even win his start, losing the Turf to Found. Golden Horn, honored as Europe’s 2015 Cartier Horse of the Year, did not need to come to the U.S. to be acknowledged as better than any turf horse in America. And when he did get here, he didn’t need to leave his stall to be acknowledged as the best turf male to set foot in the U.S. during 2015. He’s that good and American turf runners that mediocre.

It’s no secret that European horses are generally superior to North American turf specialists. That has been the case for more than 200 years, and that almost certainly will be the case for the next hundred years.

The issue is whether a horse should make more than a cameo appearance in order to be eligible for a North American championship title. Is the Eclipse Award meant to honor the best performance of the year for a horse in a specific division? Is it for the best performance at the Breeders’ Cup? Or is it for overall achievement and excellence through the year? In many cases, these questions can be answered in different ways by individual voters in the same year in different categories.

Before we go further, it should be clear that I am a strong supporter of the Breeders’ Cup and appreciate the structure it has provided our sport. Without it, racing would be worse off in many ways.

Also, let’s not misconstrue this as a xenophobic argument. Over the years, I have voted as champions many who made just a single start here (Pebbles, Arazi, Johannesburg, Miesque, Daylami, Banks Hill, High Chaparral, Ouija Board, etc.), invariably because they won a Breeders’ Cup event. These one-start champions have almost always been turf stars, in both the male and female divisions, who came to the States to race in – and win – the Breeders’ Cup, thus stamping themselves as superior to North American grass runners. In the three-plus decades that the Breeders’ Cup has been in existence, only two horses came from Europe to win on dirt and were voted champions the same year – Arazi and Johannesburg, both winners of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

These one-hit wonders did not happen before the Breeders’ Cup was inaugurated, and even in the earlier days of the Cup, it was not as common as it is now. From 1984, the inaugural Breeders’ Cup, through 1998, there were only four instances of a horse being voted champion off one North American start (Pebbles, Arazi, and Miesque twice). Since 1999, it has happened 13 times (Daylami, Kalanisi, Johannesburg, Fantastic Light, Banks Hill, High Chaparral twice, Islington, Ouija Board twice, Conduit, and Goldikova twice). The Breeders’ Cup is now entrenched as a championship event for racing; it actually bills itself as the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, not the Breeders’ Cup North American Championships, but no matter, it weighs heavily in the minds of voters.

Other racing jurisdictions take different approaches in determining champions. In Canada, a horse must make a minimum of two starts there to be eligible for a Sovereign Award. Canadians no doubt took offense at the European runners who annually invaded Woodbine in the fall to win the Canadian International and E.P. Taylor and walk away with championships, or a U.S.-based horse who crossed the border to make one winning start for a title.

Europe’s Cartier awards use a formula, a combination of points earned in group races (40 percent of the total) and votes by British racing journalists (30 percent) and readers of the Racing Post and Daily Telegraph newspapers (30 percent). Those awards have been in place since 1991.

Under the Cartier formula, it would be highly unlikely that an American-based horse could go to Europe for a single start and become a European champion – even if the horse won the Arc. (If an American horse ever did that, European turf writers would no doubt go ballistic and call for every Arc entrant to be neutered immediately since they would have lost all right to contribute to the future gene pool. Or something like that.)

Could a better system be instituted, one that would require two or three starts at minimum? Inclusion of fan voting? Establishment of a points system based on the American graded stakes system? A combination of some of the above? Maybe.

Are one-race champions a major problem? No, but the Eclipse Awards are an important part of the American sport, and there’s no harm in reviewing the process to ensure it’s fair and that the awards properly reflect the racing calendar.

Gerry Catalano More than 1 year ago
First of all it should noted that these awards are "international" and not "national" although all the voting comes NTRA, Daily Racing Form and the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters. I don't totally agree that the international horses should make at least two starts in the USA to be eligible but it would help racing in the U.S. If the European horses have to make two or more starts in the USA would they bother coming over and that is not good either. I personally enjoy seeing the greatest horses from around the world even if it's only for one race. Also, I'm not a fan of public voting (see DFR poll on HOY where Beholder and Runhappy are getting votes when AP is the horse of the decade.)
Héctor Lebrón More than 1 year ago
The rules should be tweaked definitely. First of all, the HOY should only go to dirt horses since turf horses already have their own awards. No 3 year old should be HOY unless it has beaten Gr 1 dirt horses. Same applies to 2 yr olds. Females should not be HOY unless she has beaten Gr 1 older dirt horses. I believe a HOY should go literally to the best dirt horse as determined if possible by head to head competitions.
DavidM9999 More than 1 year ago
I love top flight European horses coming to America, be it for a few races or just one on Breeders Cup day(s). They add intrigue and usually a touch of class and quality. But even saying that why can't the awards be for American horses. I am ignorant but would Japan vote or even consider an American horse for an award if we ever win a big race there. Not trying to be exclusionary but it seems there are enough awards to go around for ours to focus on American campaigns. The talented Found runs a bang up race here so that super-cedes whole campaign for others? If Golden Horn had won the same argument. No one is saying Big Blue Kitten or Pizza Man are better than the best grass routers in Europe. I don't believe they are but why does one start in America mean you qualify for our Eclipses. For me the Eclipses are for owners and the hard working connections. I will not be fired up whoever takes the hardware. It was a very good year in terms of accomplishment and quality in several divisions. Other divisions may have been weaker in 2015. That happens in many years.
Frank Reach More than 1 year ago
Good article. There's never a problem with discussing or looking at what could be a "better system" for the eclipse awards. However, I have no problem with the way it is now. I like that the voters get to be subjective in their selections. I do see why the horse needs to have started at least once in North America to be considered, but to think the voter should only look at how the horse performed in that once race is silly. I think the voters are smart enough to look at a horses entire yearly performance, no matter where those races took place and vote on who they think deserves the award. In the past, I've strongly disagreed with several selections. But, in horse racing to expect that we would all agree is unlikely anyway. But, majority should rule in this voting. And, yes, it's not objective.....and it shouldn't be. Voters are intelligent and they can look at a horses body of work and vote. This year American Pharoah was a blessing to witness. When they hand the Eclipse Award to the Zayat family for AP's HOY award, this fan will be giving a standing ovation to their entire team.
Ron Rios More than 1 year ago
Excellent article…. another criteria I would like to see is that any horse (except 2 year olds) has to have make at least 6 starts… like other sports, you can't win a batting title without a minimum number of bats...
Joel Firsching More than 1 year ago
The racing media wants 100 % of the vote. And they dont like having guidelines. That way zenyatta can have an award, even though blame was HOY. This year the media thinks flintshire's only victory at saratoga means he had a better year than golden horn. Horn beat flintshire in the arc. Why is the media ignoring what foreign horses do internationally ? Woodbine is in a foreign country, but their races are included. In 2008, curlin wouldnt have won HOY without including his dubai races. It should be ok for a one time two year old winning an eclipse. Because there are only a few grade 1 races for two year olds.
jbluft More than 1 year ago
These are really good points. It's really tough to put Flintshire or even Big Blue Kitten ahead of Golden Horn on a ballot knowing how much better Golden Horn is than the other two horses and how much better he is than any American turf horse. Similarly, Found only ran one race here, but in that one race she showed her class by defeating the acknowledged best (male) turf horse in the world.
charliezegers More than 1 year ago
I thought Marcus Hirsch was correct in saying that if Golden Horn is considered at all, he ought to be a nominee for Horse of the Year as well. But Mark's larger point is really well taken - most of the criticism of the nominees stems from the idea that European form/results shouldn't factor in the voting... but the voting guidelines don't say any such thing.