Updated on 12/28/2012 4:11PM

Simon: Eclipse voting process needs structure


When it comes to Eclipse Award voting, I have one nagging question: Who thinks up these rules? Well, no, that’s not quite right. Rather, who doesn’t think up these rules? No, that’s not right, either. How about … why are there no rules?

For those not familiar with the time-honored Eclipse Award voting process, here it is in a nutshell: Take your ballot and vote for whomever you want, using whatever self-constructed methodology or guidelines, whimsical or otherwise, you see fit. It has been this way for 41 years, since the Eclipse Awards were instituted in 1971 to streamline the process of designating divisional champions, when the voting of three organizations was consolidated. But as racing has evolved into an increasingly international sport, that free-for-all system of voting is no longer adequate. In fact, it seems high time for some standards to be put in place.

Under the present system, each voter receives a ballot with Daily Racing Form past performances for leading candidates in each equine division. Nowhere, in fact, does it even stipulate that the awards are supposed to be for performance in North America. It may be assumed, but new voters may have their own thoughts. These "suggested" nominees are determined by a committee of the three sponsoring organizations—the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Daily Racing Form, and National Turf Writers and Broadcasters—with the horses presented usually being all divisional Grade 1 winners, along with some selected toss-ins.

The only dictum that comes with the ballot is that one must vote for three in each division, with said voter being summarily disqualified if he or she fails to do so. But only first-place votes are counted to determine the winner. The Eclipse Award committee wants at least three finalists to announce, because, heaven forbid, there is a unanimous selection and everyone knows the winner before the envelope is opened … though in reality, few Eclipse Awards are a surprise. They also want finalists to ensure strong attendance at the event, a fair enough point, plus it’s an honor being a finalist, if even a distant one.

The present standard-less system allows each voter to determine his/her own definition of what the Eclipse Awards are. Some view it as strictly merit-based, with the most accomplished horse receiving their support. Others may see it as something of a handicapping exercise, determining which horse might have been best at year’s end, even if seemingly outranked class-wise through much of the season. Still others may simply go with the horse that won the perceived championship race, often a Breeders’ Cup event. And then there are those sentimentalists who throw all rational thought out the window and allow their hearts to do the voting.

Non-equine categories come with their own set of un-standardized problems. Included with the past performance supplement are lists of leading owners, breeders, trainers, jockeys, and apprentice jockeys—statistically sliced, diced, ranked, and presented by overall earnings, graded stakes earnings, graded stakes wins, etc. While use of these criteria may seem like a fairly benign system, think again.

The leader boxes for owners, breeders, et al., are clearly marked as North American … but with the stipulation: "Includes Dubai World Cup Day." Huh? Why would the process of determining North American champions include racing in Dubai? And why only one country outside North America? What about England, Ireland, France, Japan, and Australia, and anywhere major races are held in which American-based horses compete? And why are breeders not given credit for American-breds that compete in major races worldwide? Voters are apparently asked to ignore results of such races as the Epsom Derby, Arc de Triomphe, Melbourne Cup, and Japan Cup, to name a few.

The presentation of worldwide data—if that data is to be included for voters—is not difficult to obtain. The Jockey Club has complete racing data for 25 countries today, plus stakes winners worldwide for all the other countries.

Because the Dubai World Cup races are included in the statistics, Godolphin was far and away the leading owner by 2012 earnings. Its runners earned $8 million in the Dubai World Cup alone. Godolphin had a splendid year in North America as well, with nine graded stakes wins (tied for most by an owner) and would have received ample consideration for outstanding owner honors in any event, be it North American or worldwide statistics.

The reason Dubai races are included is twofold: The races used to be part of a worldwide series that included important international races in Europe and the Far East, and all participating races were in the statistics, but when that series went by the wayside, the Dubai races were grandfathered in. Plus, some years ago, a few North American jockeys’ agents complained very loudly when the Dubai races were about to be dropped, saying the races drew a lot of American runners and the results could not be ignored as they were important in the jockeys standings. (Few North American riders compete abroad in any other events, so the agents don’t care about anywhere else.)

It is unfortunate that breeders and owners do not have lobbyists strong enough to get all international races that affect their interests included in the statistics.

And last, why is there no minimum number of starts required in North America to be eligible for an Eclipse Award? The standard today is none. Nowhere in the rules does it say that a horse must make even a single start on this continent. As such, there is nothing to prevent someone from voting for English-raced Frankel as Horse of the Year. That may sound preposterous, but it’s not against the rules. (What rules?)

In Canada, to be eligible for a Sovereign Award, its Eclipse Award equivalent, a horse must make at least three starts in the country to be eligible (two starts for juveniles).

The committee in charge of the Eclipse Awards can do the award a great service by coming up with some guidelines. It can begin by defining a minimum number of starts, and in what country or countries, and devise standards for statistics that are either North American or worldwide. Just pick one, any one, and let everyone know what the rules are.