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COMMENTARY

DECEMBER 23, 2009

The Ballot

by Vance Hanson

After a one-year hiatus I am pleased to again have the privilege of filling out an Eclipse Award ballot, this time as a newly admitted member of the National Turf Writers Association (NTWA). This is my 10th year of voting for the sport's divisional champions, but the first where I have a forum to publicly acknowledge my selections and explain the thought process behind my choices. I'll also take this opportunity to give some insight into the criteria I use when determining champions in certain divisions.

Before proceeding, some past performance information. In nine previous years, I cast a vote for roughly 90 equine divisional champions with 79 (87.8 percent) of those coming out on top when all the votes were tallied. In Horse of the Year balloting, I was six-for-nine. I recall abstaining only once from an equine category, for 2007 champion female sprinter, as a protest against the splitting of the sprint category into separate male and female divisions (which I still feel is unnecessary given the success and near-success many fillies and mares have had at landing divisional honors against the boys). My abstention did not hurt Maryfield's candidacy one bit.

From 1999 through 2007, I correctly selected the winners every year for champion two-year-old filly, older male and older female. In other words, I know how to shoot fish in a barrel. I differed with a majority of my peers most frequently in the turf male and sprint divisions, going six-for-nine in each. I've never regretted a single selection, only the final ones that differed from my own.

Let's begin with the categories where there should be little room for argument or need for much explanation.

Three-year-old male:

SUMMER BIRD (Birdstone). Clinched this honor with his victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1).

Three-year-old filly:

RACHEL ALEXANDRA (Medaglia d'Oro).

Older female:

ZENYATTA.

Turf male:

GIO PONTI (Tale of the Cat). I've had no qualms in the past about selecting a European import for either turf category, even one with a single victory in the United States. However, I go overseas only in the complete absence of a clear-cut leader among domestic runners. Gio Ponti won four of the five grass races he contested this season, and his unlikely loss in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational (G1) was to a challenger he had soundly beaten previously in the Man o' War S. (G1) and Manhattan H. (G1).

Female sprinter:

INFORMED DECISION (Monarchos). She's a completely different animal on synthetic, but purists like myself are placated somewhat by the token dirt score in the Humana Distaff (G1).

Steeplechaser:

MIXED UP (Carnivalay). The 10-year-old's campaign was inconsistent, but he appeared to avenge all of his seasonal losses in winning the Colonial Cup (NSA-G1), A.P. Smithwick Memorial (NSA-G1) and the restricted Imperial Cup. This was a less-than-spectacular year for the division following the mid-season defection of two-time champion Good Night Shirt (Concern), who exited the stage due to injury after two starts and most likely would have won a third consecutive Eclipse if healthy.

And now for some slightly more contentious races.

Turf female:

I felt Goldikova (Ire) (Anabaa) would be a worthy recipient in the wake of her second consecutive win in the Breeders' Cup Mile (G1), but the late-season heroics of VENTURA in the Matriarch S. (G1) undoubtedly enhanced her credentials for this honor. Her victory over males in the Woodbine Mile (Can-G1) was as aesthetically pleasing as Goldikova's Breeders' Cup triumph, and her lone setback on turf during the year was to presumptive turf male champion Gio Ponti in the Frank E. Kilroe Mile (G1). How often do we see the leaders of these two divisions separated by such a small margin?

Male sprinter:

The strength of this division was concentrated in the east as Zensational's three stakes win in California were Grade 1s in name only, a prime example of why I never take a race's grade at face value without scrutinizing the entire field's composition and quality. While he enjoyed a less consistent campaign than rival Fabulous Strike (Smart Strike), KODIAK KOWBOY did beat his foe in two of their three meetings, including the Vosburgh S. (G1) at a distance many figured would favor Fabulous Strike. Kodiak Kowboy's win in the Cigar Mile (G1) enhanced his reputation but had no bearing on my selection as it was not technically a sprint.

There is a hint of truth to the adage that "a good horse can run anything," but one should be careful to stretch that to mean horses are equally adept on all surfaces. A very select few are, but the vast majority have their preference.

The decision to contest the Breeders' Cup on a synthetic surface for two consecutive years angered a lot of folks, but for me the most serious drawback was that it unnecessarily muddled the picture in several Eclipse Award categories. Aside from engaging in voluntary masochism, there was no justifiable reason for Eastern-based horsemen with a potential champion in the barn to risk losing on a non-dirt surface. Likewise, California-based horsemen had fewer incentives to ship their best runners east to run on non-synthetic surfaces. This situation was especially problematic in the juvenile divisions as we didn't see the very best from each region face each other.

Two-year-old male:

The Eastern-based colt I was most impressed with, Jackson Bend (Hear No Evil), spent a large chunk of his campaign running in restricted stakes. Buddy's Saint (Saint Liam) and D' Funnybone (D'wildcat) had their moments as well, but none really did enough to overtake the California-based LOOKIN AT LUCKY (Smart Strike) for divisional honors. While purists will hold their nose given his complete lack of dirt form, the fact he is kin to Jim Dandy S. (G2) and Dwyer S. (G2) winner Kensei (Mr. Greeley) suggests he might have run effectively on a more traditional surface.

Two-year-old filly:

She Be Wild (Offlee Wild) might very well back into this award following her Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) win, but if anyone was flattered in that particular race it was HOT DIXIE CHICK (Dixie Union), who easily dispatched eventual Juvenile Fillies runner-up Beautician (Dehere) in the Spinaway S. (G1) and Schuylerville S. (G3). And Beautician, who lost the Breeders' Cup by less than a length, is clearly no lover of synthetics given her lackluster defeats in the Alcibiades S. (G1) and Hollywood Starlet (G1). Hot Dixie Chick was the best juvenile filly I saw this year, and it should be noted that previous divisional champions such as Ruffian (1974) and Dearly Precious (1975) did not run past Labor Day weekend nor win stakes beyond seven furlongs.

There is one more division to discuss, older male, as well as Horse of the Year. As my choice for the latter has partially influenced my selection for the former, I'll get the big one out of the way first.

Horse of the Year:

Many racing writers like to point out there is no established criteria for Horse of the Year. While technically true, that statement overlooks the established voting patterns of the past seven decades. The champion three-year-old male or the champion older male, whichever is better, has been the default choice of voters more than 60 times since formal polling began in 1936. That makes perfect sense as they are often the biggest stars of the sport and, physiologically, the fastest and strongest of the season's champions. In the absence of an impressive enough champion in either division, the top turf male is usually the most likely beneficiary of the gold Eclipse. If he, too, is unworthy, then we have a year like 2009.

The two leading candidates this time are a filly and a mare, both of whom defeated older males. That simple qualification, adhered to by unanimous Horse of the Year winners Twilight Tear, Busher, All Along and Lady's Secret, was ignored by the majority of voters who supported Azeri in 2002. I'm personally glad to have it back.

The three-year-old achieved feats that generations of racing fans had literally never seen before: victories in the Preakness S. (G1) and Woodward S. (G1) and a demolishing of her male champion counterpart by a margin of six lengths in their only meeting in the Haskell Invitational (G1). The older mare will go down in history as the first female winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1), a race that routinely attracts the very best Thoroughbreds in training. And she barely broke a sweat doing so.

In the absence of a showdown between the two, I've come to the conclusion that the accomplishments of RACHEL ALEXANDRA trump those of Zenyatta. Since 1936, there has never been an instance where a champion three-year-old filly won a classic, defeated her male champion counterpart by an overwhelming margin, and defeated a group of older males at scale weights (or conceding weight on the scale) over a distance of ground all in the same season. We witnessed a campaign by Rachel Alexandra many of us are unlikely to ever see again by horse of her age and sex. While Rachel Alexandra stepped outside her division three times, Zenyatta's campaign outside the Classic was a conservative carbon copy of her 2008 season. I think she was capable of successfully handling a more aggressive schedule and should have been given the opportunity to do so.

Supporters of Zenyatta's candidacy have typically argued two things. First, Zenyatta defeated a far better group in winning the Breeders' Cup Classic than Rachel Alexandra did winning the Woodward, and did so more easily. Second, that the Breeders' Cup is the sport's ultimate event, the equivalent of the Super Bowl, and was created to decide championships and thus should not be bypassed for any reason other than ill health.

I will not dispute that the composition of the Classic was better than the Woodward. It simply was. I would argue, however, that Zenyatta enjoyed a far greater edge than most of her rivals in that race based on her multiple winning experiences over Pro-Ride. Of her 11 rivals, six had winning experience on a synthetic surface and only four had a significant win on Pro-Ride. Repeating my earlier statement that most horses have a surface of preference, in my mind more than half the Classic field had a built-in excuse for not winning even before the gates opened. In contrast, the Woodward was entirely comprised of dirt winners and, for what it's worth, the best older males in training based on the East Coast at that point. Rachel Alexandra enjoyed no significant surface edge at Saratoga.

Regarding the Breeders' Cup, if it's sole raison d'etre was to decide championships, well, we already had those kind of races before 1984. They just weren't conducted on the same afternoon at the same track and packaged for network television. Those that are still around are unceremoniously considered "preps" for the various Breeders' Cup events that displaced them. Most, like the Woodward, are still prestigious events and are worth winning. If I'm entirely wrong about that and the view the Breeders' Cup was conceived foremost as a marketing tool, let those who disagree be vocal in calling for their abolition. There's no sense in running them anymore if the Breeders' Cup is the one and only definitive event on the fall calendar, which is hard to believe considering it was a only a year ago that a less popular result in the Classic was ignored by Eclipse voters.

Older male:

My NTWA colleague, Gary West, beat me to the punch in noting the parallels between the 2009 class of older males and those in the class of 1970, the year prior to the institution of the Eclipse Awards. So inscrutable was the division in 1970 that Daily Racing Form voters gave year-end honors to turf champion Fort Marcy despite the fact he never made a single stakes appearance on dirt that season. The Thoroughbred Racing Association (TRA) poll awarded divisional honors to Nodouble, who won the San Pasqual H. and Metropolitan H., ran third in the Californian S. and was unplaced in the Santa Anita H., Gulfstream Park H., Michigan Mile and One-Eighth H. and Vosburgh H. A forgettable championship season to be sure, but the TRA was historically correct in awarding it to a dirt specialist as turf horses have their own award for a reason.

Some have argued that this year's Fort Marcy equivalent, Gio Ponti, deserves older male honors given the dearth of a consistent main track performer. While his runner-up finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic was a noteworthy effort, he was only fifth in the Strub S. (G2) in his only other non-turf effort. I can not possibly support a horse who won only on turf for an award that historically honors excellence, so to speak, on dirt or its nominal equivalent.

Einstein (Brz) won the Santa Anita H. (G1) on Pro-Ride over turf specialist Champs Elysees (GB) and lost the Donn H. (G1), Stephen Foster H. (G1) and Clark H. (G2) on dirt. Rail Trip (Jump Start) was consistent but counted the the Hollywood Gold Cup (G1) as his only significant win. Richard's Kid (Lemon Drop Kid) took the Pacific Classic (G1) after some inexcusable losses in minor dirt events. As far as accomplishment, Albertus Maximus (Albert the Great) and Well Armed (Tiznow) were both "one and done" by March.

I felt Bribon (Fr) (Mark of Esteem [Ire]) would have been a possible dark horse candidate if he had held on in the Cigar Mile, which would have given him three consecutive main track wins to go with scores in the Metropolitan H. (G1) and Westchester S. (G3). On his best day, he's a solid racehorse.

Ultimately, my decision came down to Bullsbay (Tiznow) and MACHO AGAIN (Macho Uno). While Bullsbay finished ahead of Macho Again in three of their five meetings, Macho Again conceded weight to Bullsbay in each of those losses. His victories in the New Orleans H. (G2) and Stephen Foster with seconds in the Whitney H. (G1) and Woodward, finishing a mere head behind my Horse of the Year selection in the latter, look pretty good even if the other half of his campaign does not.

In my opinion, it's the least defensible vote I'll have made in 10 years. But hey, Macho Again's record looks a lot better than Nodouble's.


 

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