01/22/2017 10:50AM

Watchmaker: Form holds up in Eclipse Award voting


Decades of racing results have taught us that favorites win 33 percent of the time. But chalk ruled at the Eclipse Awards ceremony Saturday night at Gulfstream Park. A strong case can be made that favorites went a whopping 17 for 17 in the equine and human categories voted on by the Eclipse Awards electorate at large.

This is good. Although I had a different choice at the top of my ballot in two of those 17 categories, I have absolutely zero issue with the winners in the two divisions in which I knowingly, and with justifiable reason, went against the grain.

The point is, the Eclipse Awards is no place for jaw-dropping upsets (or for utterly classless acceptance speeches, either; but that is a matter for another time). It is important that form holds up in the Eclipse Awards, and did it ever Saturday night.

There were three unanimous champions: California Chrome, Songbird, and Classic Empire received every vote in the 248 ballots cast in the older dirt male, 3-year-old filly, and 2-year-old male divisions, respectively.

In fact, the closest equine divisional battle was for male turf horse, and it really wasn’t close at all: Flintshire outpolled Highland Reel 137 votes to 76. The 61-vote difference is actually quite overwhelming when you consider that, after two abstentions, a total of 246 votes were cast in this division.

The next closest equine division was for steeplechase horse, which Rawnag won by a 140-vote landslide. All other equine divisions that weren’t won unanimously were won by even larger margins.

Voters in the Eclipse Awards come from one of three entities: the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Daily Racing Form, and the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association. A total of 264 ballots were issued to voters, and 248 were returned, which means 16 people who were invited to vote did not participate, whether by choice or indifference. Either way, those who did not vote are, by their action, demonstrating that they don’t appreciate the serious responsibility of this process, and should be subject to a two-strike rule: if you decline to vote twice, you permanently lose the opportunity to vote.

As noted in this space every year, there is a small number of Eclipse Awards voters who use their vote and either clearly fail to grasp the solemnity of the situation, or worse, make a mockery of it by casting indefensible votes. Unfortunately, we had a handful of wacky votes again this year.

I well realize that the 2016 2-year-old filly division wasn’t the strongest we’ve ever seen. Still, someone, somehow, thought Victory to Victory, who lost a maiden race and an allowance race in her first two starts and then won the Natalma Stakes at Woodbine in her last start, was a better choice for champion 2-year-old filly than two Breeders’ Cup winners in Champagne Room and New Money Honey, or Lady Aurelia, the Cartier Award winner for Europe’s top juvenile filly.

One voter thought Catch a Glimpse, winner of the Grade 1 Belmont Oaks over straight 3-year-olds, but a tired eighth in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf in her one start versus older opponents, was more worthy of the turf female title than international Grade and Group 1 winner Tepin, or, for that matter, a handful of other standouts such as Queen’s Trust, Lady Eli, Found, and Miss Temple City.

Shaking your head yet? Check this one out: One voter thought champion turf male should go to Da Big Hoss, who finished 11th of 12 in the Breeders’ Cup Turf in his only Grade 1 attempt of 2016, over multiple Grade 1 winner Flintshire, or Breeders’ Cup winners Highland Reel and Tourist.

Speaking of indefensible, one voter put Gun Runner on top in the 3-year-old male division, even though he was soundly beaten by Nyquist in the Kentucky Derby, was walloped by Exaggerator in the Haskell, and finished 15 lengths behind Arrogate in the Travers.

Finally, one person cast a vote for Highland Reel for Horse of the Year. Now, Highland Reel is a fine horse, a true international Grade 1 performer. And his victory in the Breeders’ Cup Turf was very impressive, even accounting for the fact that he absolutely stole the race by getting very loose on a walking lead.
However, a 1 3/4-length victory in the Breeders’ Cup turf in a horse’s only North American outing is not nearly enough for a legitimate Horse of the Year argument even in an average year, and shouldn’t have been anywhere near open to consideration in a 2016 that featured the accomplishments of California Chrome and Arrogate, among others.