01/16/2014 12:49PM

Steven Crist: Eclipse Awards races looking chalky

Tom Keyser
Will the overall season of She's a Tiger (right) trump the by-disqualification victory by Ria Antonia in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Filles?

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – If you’re looking for a lot of suspense at Gulfstream Park Saturday night, try the poker room or the late simulcast races. The Eclipse Awards in the track’s banquet room that night will for the most part be the posting of “official” signs ratifying foregone conclusions.

If someone were conducting pick-12 wagering on the dozen equine awards, I think you could very safely single in seven of the races: Will Take Charge (champion 3-year-old male), Beholder (3-year-old filly), Royal Delta (older female) Wise Dan (turf male and Horse of the Year), Dank (turf female), and Groupie Doll (sprint female).

Two others seem almost as certain, just short of cinchdom.

Wise Dan will probably win the older male title despite much discussion about whether this award should go to a dirt horse, as it usually has in the past. The practical problem this year is that those who believe this (and I am among them) appear to be divided on an alternative between Game On Dude and Mucho Macho Man, the two other finalists in the category, thus splitting any protest vote. Last year, when Wise Dan got 194 of 254 votes for Horse of the Year, he received only 139 of those votes for older male (Fort Larned was a fairly close second with 109 votes). It will be interesting to see how those numbers look this time around.

[Eclipse Awards 2013: Watch Saturday's Eclipse Awards dinner live]

She’s a Tiger also seems a likely winner as champion 2-year-old filly despite being placed second behind Ria Antonia for interference in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. The rest of She’s a Tiger’s campaign is so vastly superior to Ria Antonia’s that it is difficult to believe a majority of voters will slavishly follow a single stewards’ decision in one race when choosing a champion.

Whether to reward a single Breeders’ Cup result amid an otherwise inadequate campaign is the question hanging over what could be the two closest calls of the night, the awards for male sprinter and 2-year-old male. In remarkably similar cases, a Bob Baffert trainee won a Cup race, but for both Secret Circle (Sprint) and New Year’s Day (Juvenile) it was their lone stakes appearance and only the second victory of any kind in a two- or three-race campaign.

In both categories there is a more-than-plausible alternative that a majority of voters may embrace. Shared Belief’s runaway victories in the Prevue and Hollywood Futurity stamped him the nation’s top 2-year-old, and Points Offthebench had a pair of Grade 1 sprint victories before his tragic demise while training for the BC Sprint, where he would have been heavily favored.

The 12th equine Eclipse is for champion steeplechaser, a category in which I abstained and for which I believe the decision should be made by a committee of jump experts rather than an electorate of flat-racing observers who for the most part do not watch a single race over hurdles all year. In that mythical pick 12, this is the one all-button race. Divine Fortune, Gustavian, and Italian Wedding each won a single Grade 1 race in a year when steeplechasing’s six Grade 1’s went to a half-dozen different horses.

As for the five elected awards honoring humans, you don’t need a 50-cent minimum to play that pick five pretty cheaply. Todd Pletcher is the heavy favorite for another outstanding trainer statuette over Baffert and Bill Mott, and Ken and Sarah Ramsey are odds-on in both the owner and breeder categories for their success with that herd of Kitten’s Joys and a strong superfecta of leading-owner titles at Gulfstream, Keeneland, Churchill, and Saratoga.

The two jockey awards, however, require a wider net. Javier Castellano set a single-season earnings record and also topped the victory board, but seems like a slight underdog against the feel-goodery of Gary Stevens’s comeback. That seems a little unfair to Castellano, but it wouldn’t be the first time that sentiment trumped logic at the Eclipse Awards.

As for the apprentice jockey award, your ticket should probably include all three finalists: Victor Carrasco, Manuel Franco, and Edgard Zayas. I abstained in this category and continue to believe it should either be eliminated as an Eclipse category or at least be voted on by The Jockeys’ Guild or some other group more appropriate than one that focuses on stakes racing and major venues. This is no knock on these young riders, but the Eclipse Awards may not be the right place to honor promising newcomers amid top-level champions, and its electorate may not be best equipped to choose among the leading candidates.