01/23/2015 4:20PM

Sparkman: A championship by any other name


The Breeders’ Cup may have dropped its overly ambitious World Thoroughbred Championships moniker, but according to the results of the Eclipse Award ceremony on Jan. 17, the Breeders’ Cup meeting does a pretty good job of determining American championships. This year, six of the nine individual equine Eclipse Award winners for flat racing captured Breeders’ Cup races on Oct. 31 or Nov. 1.

That was indeed one of the goals the late John R. Gaines laid out when he began the process of creating the Breeders’ Cup in 1982 and 1983. And as shown in the accompanying table, the Breeders’ Cup series has accomplished that goal 54.4 percent of the time over its 31-year history. The table notes in boldface uppercase type the Eclipse Award winners who also won Breeders’ Cup races the same year they were voted champions of their division or Horse of the Year. The two columns at the far right summarize the number of individual winners of Eclipse statuettes each year (every year, there is at least one horse who wins two awards, including Horse of the Year) and the number and percentage of those individual winners who also captured Breeders’ Cup races that particular year. The boldfaced line at the bottom of the table details the individual number of Eclipse winners in that particular category over the years who also won a Breeders’ Cup race the year of their Eclipse Award.

Both the number of Breeders’ Cup races and the number of Eclipse Awards has changed since the inaugural Breeders’ Cup in 1984. That year six of the seven Breeders’ Cup races corresponded one-to-one to the 10 Eclipse Awards then on offer, with the exceptions of the Horse of the Year award, which, theoretically could go to a horse from any of the eight other categories, the two 3-year-old awards, and turf female. Three-year-olds obviously ran against older horses in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Breeders’ Cup Distaff, while female turf runners were required to run against males in either the Breeders’ Cup Turf or Breeders’ Cup Mile. The Mile was always designed primarily to attract foreign runners, since there has never been a specific turf miler award in the U.S.

Since then, the number of Eclipse Awards has increased to 11, with champion female sprinter broken out as a separate division in 2007. Likewise the number of Breeders’ Cup races has ballooned to 13.

With the exception of the recently created female sprinter category, the Breeders’ Cup races have helped determine the Eclipse Awards most closely in the two juvenile races. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner has been voted champion juvenile filly 87.1 percent of the time, while the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner has earned the Eclipse Award for champion 2-year-old male honors 74.2 of the time. This is entirely logical since, obviously, only 2-year-olds are allowed to run in the juvenile races, and they do not face competition from other age groups at the Breeders’ Cup meeting the way contenders in every other category do.

Conversely, the two 3-year-old categories post by far the lowest percentages of Eclipse Award winners who also captured Breeders’ Cup races. The 16.1 percent of Eclipse-winning 3-year-old males who also won the Breeders’ Cup Classic that year illustrates two facts of life about American racing: 1) just how difficult it is for a 3-year-old to beat mature older horses even with the weight-for-age concession; and 2) how demanding the Triple Crown trail is for American 3-year-olds. It is especially telling that 18 of the 31 champion 3-year-old males did not even run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic the year of their championship, often because they had already been retired to stud due to injury.

Likewise, the 25.8 percent strike rate for 3-year-old filly champions in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff is indicative of the difficulty of sophomore fillies face attempting to beat their elders even with the weight concession.

Perhaps the most remarkable number in the table is the number of female turf runners who have earned an Eclipse Award and a Breeders’ Cup race the same year, despite the fact that the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf was inaugurated as recently as 1999. Miss Alleged and Pebbles both defeated males in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, while Miesque and Royal Heroine both won the Breeders’ Cup Mile to clinch their Eclipse Awards.

As the table shows, this year’s 66.7 percent success rate for Breeders’ Cup winners at the Eclipse Awards is above average for the 31-year history of the Breeders’ Cup. The Breeders’ Cup hit a low point in relevance to the Eclipse Awards in the mid-1990s when only 3 of 9 winners ticked off both boxes in consecutive years. The high point occurred in 2007 when 9 of 10 Eclipse winners also won the relevant Breeders’ Cup race. The only exception was champion 3-year-old filly Rags to Riches, who raced only once after four consecutive Grade 1 wins culminating with her Belmont Stakes victory over champion 3-year-old male Curlin.

Mr. Prospector and A.P. Indy on the rise

This year’s Eclipse Awards illustrated once again the two dominant trends in American sire lines: the Mr. Prospector male line slowly closing in on Northern Dancer, and the spectacular rise of the A.P. Indy branch of the Bold Ruler line over the last decade. Pretty much since the inauguration of the Eclipse Awards in 1971, the Northern Dancer male line has dominated the awards, building up a substantial lead over every other extant male line.

Since the 1990s, however, the male line of Mr. Prospector has been cutting into that lead, and Mr. Prospector made further inroads this year. Five of the nine individual 2014 Eclipse Award winners – Main Sequence, American Pharaoh, Close Hatches, Dayatthespa, and Work All Week – trace to Mr. Prospector in male line, compared with two for Northern Dancer (Take Charge Brandi, Judy the Beauty).

The only stallion to sire two Eclipse champions in 2014 was the hard-knocking veteran City Zip, whose two Breeders’ Cup winners, Dayatthespa and Work All Week, were respectively rewarded with champion turf female and champion sprinter honors. City Zip, a Grade 1-winning 2-year-old, is easily the best son at stud by Mr. Prospector’s sprinting son Carson City.

Meanwhile, Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male California Chrome and champion 3-year-old filly Untapable both trace to A.P. Indy through his outstanding son Pulpit. Those two champions bring A.P. Indy’s total number of Eclipse winners to 10 since A.P. Indy himself won Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male honors in 1992.

Of course, numbers of Eclipse winners for any male line can vary dramatically from year to year in such a small sample. However, trends do appear over time, and both Mr. Prospector and A.P. Indy are trending up in the American Thoroughbred.