Eclipse Award ballots are due by January 3 and Horse of the Year wasn’t an easy choice for me. It’s a two-horse race between the top finishers from the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), Arrogate and California Chrome.
I’ll admit to being in Arrogate’s corner immediately following the Breeders’ Cup. At the time, it was simply a matter of their head-to-head record: Arrogate won, end of story.
But while head-to-head records serve as a preferred measuring stick, it doesn’t always tell the whole story.
When it comes to overall resume, California Chrome stands tall. The magnificent chestnut dominated the landscape most of the year, posting stakes victories in seven different months including awe-inspiring wins in the Dubai World Cup, Pacific Classic and Awesome Again.
The late-blooming Arrogate was on the scene sparingly, making his career debut in April and only a pair of starts after August 4. Supporters will say the 3-year-old did enough despite just two stakes appearances, smashing the track record when posting a 13 ½-length Travers (G1) upset in his stakes debut and defeating a loose-on-the-lead California Chrome in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
As history shows, head-to-head records don’t always matter as voters give plenty of consideration to the body of work. Two of the last six Horse of the Year winners lost the Breeders’ Cup Classic to a rival with a better head-to-head mark.
In 2014, Bayern won 2-of-3 starts versus California Chrome, including the last two in the Classic and Pennsylvania Derby (G2), but California Chrome came away with the top prize.
Blame, who also captured the Whitney H. (G1) and Stephen Foster (G1) during the 2010 season, defeated Zenyatta in a Classic for the ages but wound up second in Horse of the Year voting.
And the head-to-head scorecard won’t be the deciding factor for me in 2016.
The Classic distance was key for Arrogate, who needed every step of the 1 ¼-mile trip to beat California Chrome. The lightly-raced colt has established himself as a true 10-furlong specialist at this point in his career, making his only stakes attempts at a single distance.
California Chrome captured 7-of-8 starts from 1 1/16 miles to 1 ¼ miles, winning on four different tracks and overseas, and the 5-year-old excelled in stakes races from January 9 through December 17. And it’s fair to wonder what would’ve happened had Victor Espinoza not been so overconfident in the Breeders’ Cup.
The jockey rode the Classic like it was a paid workout, expecting to win under wraps as he constantly peeked over his shoulders while cruising through the far turn and into the stretch. He had the opportunity to try and put the race away by opening an insurmountable advantage, but Espinoza waited until deep stretch to ask for California Chrome’s best. And by that time it was too late.
California Chrome lost little in defeat in my estimation and will receive my Horse of the Year ballot.
Here are my other Eclipse Award selections:
Arrogate and Songbird are runaway winners in their respective 3-year-old categories. A vote for any other filly than Songbird can’t be justified.
The same can be said for California Chrome in the older male category. Beholder probably won’t be a unanimous selection, with Stellar Wind and Cavorting eligible to receive votes, but she deserves to win her second straight older female award and fourth overall Eclipse (2-year-old filly & 3-year-old filly in 2012-13).
The Breeders’ Cup proved key for sprinter and female sprinter, divisions lacking depth in 2016. Drefong concluded the season with wins in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) and King’s Bishop (G1), and the 3-year-old gets the nod over stablemate Lord Nelson, who was forced to miss the Sprint due to a minor injury.
Finest City, who dropped her two starts prior to the Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) in turf routes, scored at 8-1 from post 12 in the Breeders’ Cup and also captured the Great Lady M (G2) during the spring. She gets the edge by default in a down year for female sprinters.
Flintshire was a welcome addition to the American turf ranks and his class showed winning the Manhattan (G1), Sword Dancer (G1) and Bowling Green (G2). He couldn’t catch the classy Highland Reel in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), rallying determinedly to be a clear second, but Flintshire will still receive my vote.
Tepin stands out among female turf runners, compiling six stakes wins in 2016, including the Queen Anne (G1) at Royal Ascot. She wasn’t able to repeat in the Mile (G1) but turned in a commendable effort finishing a half-length second versus male rivals.
Classic Empire capped a championship season by winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). The Pioneerof the Nile colt won all three stakes he finished, including the Breeders’ Futurity (G1), as his lone career setback came when he reared and dumped the jockey at the start of the Hopeful (G1).
The juvenile fillies division left something to be desired and Champagne Room receives top billing following her Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) upset. She was a 33-1 outsider in the Juvenile Fillies but Champagne Room did capture the Sorrento (G2) at Del Mar, giving her as many graded wins as any North American-based rival.
“Big Money” Mike Smith continued to shine on many of Thoroughbred racing’s biggest days and was the leading Breeders’ Cup jockey with three wins. He served as the regular rider for Arrogate and Songbird, and the Hall of Famer has an exciting Kentucky Derby prospect in unbeaten Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) winner Mastery. Smith will be seeking his third Eclipse Award but first since winning back-to-back in 1993-94.
The trainer race appears up for grabs and I went with Mark Casse after a banner season in which he ranked third by earnings with nearly $18 million. He won nine Grade/Group 1 races and trained presumptive champions Classic Empire and Tepin. The Indiana native can earn his first Eclipse Award.
Despite being a smaller operation, with only 40 starters in 2016, Clearsky Farms led all breeders with six Grade 1 wins. Arrogate, Lord Nelson and Abel Tasman were all bred by Clearsky Farms. Leading owner goes to Juddmonte Farms, who counted Arrogate and Flintshire among their top American representatives.