12/27/2013 3:55PM

Sparkman: A year of jumbled divisions in Eclipse Awards

Barbara D. Livingston
Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Beholder is a lock to be nominated in one of the more contentious Eclipse Award divisions this year, that of champion 3-year-old filly.

One of the perks of being a turf writer is the privilege of voting on the Eclipse Awards. Come to think of it, for a semiretired gentleman of the turf, that might be just about the only benefit one could characterize as a perk.

That being said, marking this year’s ballot is hardly a walk in the park.

As horses make fewer and fewer starts each year, choosing the “right” horse can become more subjective and less fact-based. When the two leading contenders for champion 2-year-old male each made only three starts and never faced each other, how do you choose between them?

Unless one is willing to pretend that merit ratings like Beyer Speed Figures (sorry, Andy) or Ragozin numbers are truly objective reflections of absolute ability, there is no objective standard to apply to determine whether the now-retired New Year’s Day or Shared Belief is the superior juvenile.

I suspect that for most voters, as it did for me, it will come down to the fact that one of them ran in the richest, most important 2-year-old race of the year, and the other one did not. Both New Year’s Day and Shared Belief are male-line descendants of Mr. Prospector, the former through Machiavellian and the latter through Fappiano, so whoever wins, it will not change the never-ending struggle between the Northern Dancer and Mr. Prospector male lines for American supremacy.

It was tempting to abstain from voting for champion 2-year-old filly. The official winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, Ria Antonia, by Rockport Harbor (a great-grandson of Fappiano), actually finished second by a nose behind She’s a Tiger, who possesses a far superior overall record. And then Streaming, by Smart Strike, like Shared Belief in the male division, won the biggest late-season Grade 1 race so impressively that she likely will get votes as well.

None of those fillies, nor anything else in the division, gave hints of a future Hall of Fame career, however, and whomever the statuette is awarded to must count themselves lucky to have been in the right place at the right time.

Will Take Charge, by Unbridled’s Song, a great-grandson of Fappiano, almost certainly clinched the 3-year-old male division with his thrilling victory over Game On Dude in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap. With the Triple Crown divided evenly among Orb, Oxbow, and Palace Malice, Will Take Charge’s late-season heroics in the Grade 1 Travers, Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby, and Clark, plus his near-miss in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, will doubtless earn him some Horse of the Year votes, as well as a 3-year-old championship.

Deciding whom to pick for champion 3-year-old filly is a far more difficult exercise. Beholder won five of seven starts, and Princess of Sylmar took six of eight, and they faced each other twice, with each winning once.

In the Kentucky Oaks, Princess of Sylmar made her debut on the national stage by running down Beholder to win by a half-length. In the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, though, Beholder  stalked the pace and pulled away for a comfortable win, while Princess of Sylmar clearly did not run her race, finishing sixth, 16 1/4 lengths behind.

So, which was the better filly? Which deserves “champion” in front of her name? Will the more recent victory and the patina of the Breeders’ Cup make Beholder champion again, or does one accept the verdict of the only meeting where both fillies appeared to run their best race? A vote for Princess of Sylmar would mean a first-crop champion for A.P. Indy’s son Majestic Warrior, while choosing Beholder would give a repeat championship for the great-granddaughter of Storm Cat.

The voting in the older-male category should be highly competitive. The statuettes for both older male and Horse of the Year were there for the taking for Game On Dude, by Awesome Again, in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but he could not get it done either at Santa Anita or against Will Take Charge a few weeks later in the Clark. That probably will hand the crown to Mucho Macho Man, by Macho Uno, from the tenuous male line of Plaudit, as he closed his season with consecutive Grade 1 wins.

Royal Delta, another Fappiano-branch champion, still should be a shoo-in for older female despite her late-season fade. Wise Dan, another scion of Storm Cat, is all but certain to be champion turf male again, while the two Grade 1 victories of Dank, a great-granddaughter of Northern Dancer’s son Danzig, should secure her champion turf female honors.

The male and female sprint categories, though, are not so clear-cut. Groupie Doll, from the Dixieland Band branch of Northern Dancer, probably earned a repeat with her second consecutive Breeders’ Cup victory, but some voters might prefer the unique talents of Mizdirection, a descendant of the Caro male line who is special on Santa Anita’s downhill sprint course.

Male sprinter is far more confusing. Secret Circle raced only twice but won both, including the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Sahara Sky won three of four but did not race after May 27 – and was he really a sprinter, since the race he won that day was the Metropolitan Handicap? Points Offthebench, Private Zone, Justin Phillip, and Strapping Groom all had moments when they looked like champions but either did not contest the Breeders’ Cup Sprint or were well beaten. Flip a coin.

From a pedigree standpoint, whoever wins these hotly contested divisions will not change the shape or direction of American Thoroughbred pedigrees. The fact that about a third of American Thoroughbreds descend in male line from Northern Dancer, a third from Mr. Prospector, 15 percent or so from A.P. Indy, with a smattering of other male lines for seasoning, means that, on average, our champions are going to reflect that distribution.

That distribution generally changes very slowly over time. In fact, the surge of the A.P. Indy male line over the past decade has occurred remarkably quickly. Since the number of graded races, the events that identify future sire prospects, are limited and relatively static in number, it is a zero-sum game. If A.P. Indy increases his market share, some other male line or lines must, by definition, lose part of their share of the graded stakes pie.

From that point of view, then, the possibility of Mucho Macho Man, an 11th-generation descendant of 1898 Kentucky Derby winner Plaudit, earning champion older male or possibly even Horse of the Year honors takes on added significance.

Who wins Horse of the Year? Your guess – and opinion – is as good as mine.