October 7, 2022

Commentary

Last updated: 12/22/09 2:36 PM


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.