Updated on 09/17/2011 12:10PM

Tempted to vote for Gill? Just say no


WASHINGTON - Who were the outstanding human performers in Thoroughbred racing during 2003?

When Eclipse Award voters confront that question, they usually consult the lists of the leading money-winning owners, trainers, and jockeys and cast their ballots accordingly. Owner Michael Gill, trainer Bobby Frankel, and jockey Jerry Bailey top the lists this year; Frankel and Bailey are shoo-ins to add to their collection of Eclipses.

But purse winnings aren't a perfect measurement of talent. The trainer with the strongest stable, the jockey with the best mounts, and the owner most willing to spend a big bankroll are likely to earn the most money. Frankel and Bailey are brilliant practitioners of their professions, but their success in 2003 was virtually foreordained, as it is in 2004. There are other worthy choices for the Eclipse Awards besides the leading money-winners.

Gill's candidacy for the sport's top award will surely stir much discussion and controversy. He has assembled such a powerful, far-flung stable and claimed horses so aggressively that he has changed the balance of power at many tracks and sparked resentment at many of them. Delaware Park won't let Gill's horses run there; the New York Racing Association won't give him stalls.

Many of the complaints about Gill are sour grapes. He runs his operation intelligently; his judgments about claiming horses and spotting them in races are consistently astute. There is only one reason to deny him an Eclipse Award - his history of drug violations.

Gill was barred from racing for three years when a horse tested positive for clenbuterol in 1995. Since he returned to the game, one of his trainers got a stiff suspension for a drug violation at Suffolk Downs in 2001; his two Maryland trainers were caught with drug violations in 2002. When Gill's stable made its first assault on a top-level track, at Gulfstream Park last winter, it employed a veterinarian with a checkered past. Horses claimed by Gill were improving so dramatically the racetrack was abuzz with rumors and accusations. Gulfstream officials eventually ejected two of Gill's vets, though none of Gill's horses tested positive for illegal substances. At a time when Thoroughbred racing's major problem is the widespread perception that illegal drugs are out of control, the industry would be sending the wrong message if it bestowed any honor on Michael Gill.

The Eclipse Award should go instead to the Sackatoga Stable, the partnership that won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness with Funny Cide. The owners were among the sport's most visible and colorful figures this year. Their success demonstrated that people can make a small investment in a Thoroughbred and hit the jackpot. That's a message the industry should want to send.

The drug issue has so poisoned Thoroughbred racing that fans can look with a jaundiced eye at almost any successful trainer. Whenever a trainer accomplishes wondrous feats, skeptics around the track invariably conclude: "He's got the juice."

There is, however, one event on the American racing calendar that is relatively free of suspicion. The Breeders' Cup operates with the most strict security in the sport; a veterinarian can't enter a horse's stall without being observed. Coincidentally, trainers with a record of getting near-miraculous performances from their horses have been notably non-miraculous at the Breeders' Cup.

In this and future years, my Eclipse vote for outstanding trainer will be heavily influenced by the Breeders' Cup. This year, of course, the Breeders' Cup produced one of the greatest single-day performances ever by a trainer. Richard Mandella won four races - Halfbridled in the Juvenile Fillies, Action This Day in the Juvenile, Johar in the Turf, and Pleasantly Perfect in the Classic. Although Mandella is a member of the Hall of Fame and one of the most distinguished members of his profession, he has never won an Eclipse. This is the year he deserves it.

Only an incorrigible iconoclast could fashion a case against Bailey in the Eclipse Award voting. He is the best in the business, with a rare combination of cerebral powers and physical skills. The only knock against Bailey is that his success is now almost guaranteed because he gets his pick of so many top horses. If an ordinary jockey had Bailey's mounts for a year, he'd become a star, too.

But one jockey's accomplishments this year were anything but guaranteed. Patrick Valenzuela was endowed with as much talent as any jockey in the world, but he squandered his potential with a long, sad history of substance abuse.

The California racing community expected little when Valenzuela launched his latest comeback attempt, but he has amazed all the skeptics. He has led the jockey standings at every race meeting in Southern California - Santa Anita in the winter, Hollywood in the spring, Del Mar in the summer, Santa Anita in the fall, and Hollywood on the cusp of winter. Day after day, he has ridden with intensity. While a jockey of Bailey's status doesn't deign to ride cheap claiming races, Valenzuela rides them as if they are Grade 1 stakes. He deserves an Eclipse Award for the most dramatic and unexpected success story of 2003.

(c) 2003 The Washington Post