11/05/2016 10:21PM

Watchmaker: Breeders' Cup clarifies most Eclipse Award categories

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Debra Roma
Despite his loss in the Breeders' Cup Classic, California Chrome should still be honored as the year's top older dirt male.

ARCADIA, Calif. – As a championship event, the 2016 Breeders’ Cup delivered, and especially in tremendous renewals of the Classic and Distaff. But while there is some important stakes racing left this year, mainly on Thanksgiving weekend, most of this year’s Eclipse Award divisions were decided by the time “official” went up on the tote board following Saturday’s Classic.

Let’s take a look at the 10 equine Eclipse Award divisions on the flat, and the impact this Breeders’ Cup had on them, with a brief comment on Horse of the Year honors at the end:

Older Dirt Male – California Chrome had this title wrapped up months ago with a compelling body of work highlighted by powerful victories in the Dubai World Cup and Pacific Classic. His narrow loss in Saturday’s Classic, without any excuse, by the way, will have no bearing on him winning this divisional championship in a landslide.

Older Dirt Female – Beholder might have temporarily ceded leadership in this division when Stellar Wind beat her for a second time in the Zenyatta after first edging her in the Clement L. Hirsch, but Beholder wrested it back Friday with her gutsy win in the Distaff. Taking nothing away from Songbird, who was gallant in narrow defeat in the Distaff after setting the pace, but the Distaff pace never really developed the way it figured to do so. In fact, the pace in the Distaff was downright moderate. Beholder ran better than her tiny win margin would suggest because she overcame a setup that wasn’t entirely favorable. So Beholder will get what will be her fourth Eclipse Award, all earned in different years, and that is quite a feat.

3-Year-Old Male – It would have been impossible to imagine a colt who hadn’t even started in a stakes race on Aug. 26 could win this championship. But on Aug. 27, Arrogate delivered an explosive performance winning the Travers Stakes, a performance so exceptional that it suddenly put him in the conversation with Nyquist and Exaggerator for divisional honors. And when Nyquist proved unable to follow up on his strong Kentucky Derby win, apparently being cooked for good in a senseless Preakness speed duel, and when Exaggerator proved that his big wins this year were entirely functions of wet tracks and perfect pace setups, the path for Arrogate became more clear. He had to win the Classic to close the deal, which he did in a performance just as impressive as his Travers, but for a different reason. To run down a loose-on-the-lead monster like California Chrome is incredible stuff. Arrogate is hands down the champion 3-year-old male, and I can’t wait to see what he does next year.

3-Year-Old Female – When she romped in the Cotillion on Oct. 1, Songbird obliterated any potential scenario that could have denied her another divisional championship this year. But her game effort in the Distaff while racing near an inside that some thought might not have been the best part of the Santa Anita main track on Friday only enhanced the case that she should be a unanimous champion. Really, shame on any Eclipse Award voter who does not have her on top of their ballot.

2-Year-Old Male – Without question, Classic Empire clinched this title by virtue of his determined victory in what felt like a very strongly run Juvenile. How strongly run was the Juvenile? Well, even after acknowledging that the Juvenile Fillies run earlier on Saturday’s card was a weak renewal, the time of the Juvenile was faster by 2.52 seconds, which is an enormous gap. Classic Empire’s resume, which also includes a victory in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity and Grade 3 Bashford Manor, and which has a solitary blemish when he wheeled after the start of the Hopeful, is considerably stronger than any of his contemporaries. However, Not This Time ran a terrific race finishing second in the Juvenile, and while he has no championship claim over Classic Empire, the two might have kindled in the Juvenile what could become a delicious rivalry.

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2-Year-Old Female – At first glance, you might think Champagne Room’s $69.20 upset in what was a slow Juvenile Fillies just confused further what was already an unsettled division. And sure, going forward from this race, you would probably want Juvenile Fillies runner-up Valadorna, who was coming off just a maiden win, or American Gal, who had an even more absurd trip than she figured to get from the 12 hole. But by winning the big one, and the Grade 2 Sorrento in August, Champagne Room simply has better credentials than anyone else in her division, and it will take something out of the box for anyone to displace her from the top by season’s end.

Male Turf – This is one division where I doubt the corresponding Breeders’ Cup race will have a meaningful impact on the Eclipse Award vote. Highland Reel was a daylight winner of the Turf, beating Flintshire by 1 3/4 lengths. But everyone who watched the race (which I really hope means everyone who will vote in the Eclipse Awards) knows that Highland Reel absolutely walked on the lead in the early stages. And I mean walked, and that brings into question the conclusiveness of the result. When you couple that with the fact that this was Highland Reel’s only U.S. start of the year, well, I think the award should and will go to Flintshire. Victories in the Grade 1 Manhattan, Grade 1 Sword Dancer, and Grade 2 Bowling Green, and his seconds in the Turf and in the Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic give Flintshire a body of work that Highland Reel’s base on balls, somewhat fluky Turf can’t equal.

Female Turf – The scenario was somewhat clear here. Lady Eli had to do something special winning the Filly and Mare Turf, and Tepin had to do nothing against males in the Mile, for Lady Eli to have a shot to carry the vote. Lady Eli ran very well in the Filly and Mare Turf, but was nailed late. Tepin did a lot more than nothing in the Mile, finishing a rallying second to Tourist, beaten only a half-length. Tepin’s performance in the Mile was more than enough to cap a body of work on the year that included six group or graded stakes victories, led, of course, by her historic Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot.

Male Sprinter – The infected cut that caused Lord Nelson to be scratched from the Sprint (he was also retired) might prove very costly in terms of this divisional title. In Lord Nelson’s absence, the 3-year-old colt Drefong posted a clear-cut victory in the Sprint that was impressive because he withstood being inside of severe pace pressure, which is never a good place to be. The Sprint was Drefong’s second Grade 1 victory (he won the King’s Bishop in his prior start) and second stakes win of any sort in a perfect 4-for-4 season. It should be noted that Lord Nelson, who was the division’s leader before the Breeders’ Cup, collected three Grade 1 wins this year. But fair or not, Breeders’ Cup events obviously carry importance well beyond typical Grade 1 races, and Drefong is now the likely male sprint champion.

Female Sprinter – This division might leave you feeling cold with the way no one in it really stepped up. And Finest City might not fit your ideal profile of an Eclipse Award winner with just two wins in eight starts this year. But that’s what the Filly and Mare Sprint is for, to sort these matters out when we need some guidance. Finest City’s Filly and Mare Sprint victory might have been an upset, but it came in the division’s biggest race, and at least she has a Grade 2 sprint victory earlier in the season in the Great Lady M Stakes to make you feel better about the fact that her title argument is simply better than any of her division mates.

Horse of the Year – My feeling is, instead of making a quick decision between the only two real candidates for this honor – Arrogate and California Chrome - it would be best to let the Breeders’ Cup dust settle and then think about it. California Chrome’s body of work this year is compelling, and is simply better than Arrogate’s cumulative record. However, Arrogate proved that, at least on Saturday, he was better than California Chrome. I mean, California Chrome had everything his own way in the Classic, so much so that jockey Victor Espinoza couldn’t stop looking around behind him, and Arrogate still came and beat him. That was big man stuff. So while respect for body of work is very important, it shouldn’t deny a possibly superior horse our game’s most important year-end championship. We have to let this one simmer for a while.