01/13/2016 12:10PM

Simon: Eclipse standards could use retooling

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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.