It certainly didn’t require waiting for Saturday night’s Eclipse Award announcements to make plain what many of us already knew: 2016 was a vintage year for Thoroughbreds on the American turf. But now that the names of the divisional champions are officially etched in the record books, we can now recognize how special it was based on one important criteria.
Of the 10 divisional flat champions honored Saturday night, four (and potentially five) are slam dunks for the Hall of Fame:
California Chrome — A two-time Horse of the Year and presently North America’s all-time leading money winner.
Beholder — The first female in American history to earn division titles in four different seasons.
Tepin — Two-time grass champion mare with open Grade 1 wins in three different countries.
Songbird — A two-time champion who, hopefully, will enhance her Hall of Fame credentials further this year with several unrestricted Grade 1 victories.
The fifth possibility would be Arrogate, whose electric wins in the Travers (G1) and Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) suggest he is something special. A win in Saturday’s Pegasus World Cup (G1) over California Chrome would leave him only one Grade 1 win short of tying Ghostzapper, a recent Hall of Fame inductee who also earned significantly high speed figures on various scales but competed sporadically.
For the sake of argument, let’s say all five are inducted in the early 20s. That would put 2016 near the top seasons in Eclipse Award-era history in yielding Hall of Fame-worthy divisional flat champions.
Not every Hall of Fame-worthy horse that competed in the first decade and a half of this century has been so honored yet, but one suspects no season during that span will eventually yield more individual Hall of Famers that won division championships on the flat.
What were the leading years in this regard?
1974 (6 of 7): Foolish Pleasure (juvenile male), Ruffian (juvenile filly), Chris Evert (three-year-old filly), Forego (older male, sprinter), Desert Vixen (older female), Dahlia (turf horse).
1988 (6 of 9): Easy Goer (juvenile male), Open Mind (juvenile filly), Winning Colors (three-year-old filly), Alysheba (older male), Personal Ensign (older female), Miesque (turf female).
1989 (5 of 9): Go for Wand (juvenile filly), Sunday Silence (three-year-old male), Open Mind (three-year-old filly), Bayakoa (older female), Safely Kept (sprinter).
As Sinatra might have said about 2016, it was a very good year.
BAR TRIVIA: Which season in the Eclipse Award era (1971 and beyond) failed to produce a divisional flat champion that made the Hall of Fame?
ANSWER: 1982. Roving Boy (juvenile male), Landaluce (juvenile filly), Conquistador Cielo (three-year-old male), Christmas Past (three-year-old filly), Lemhi Gold (older male), Track Robbery (older female), Perrault (turf male), April Run (turf female), and Gold Beauty (sprinter) have never made it.
I think only one of these would merit serious consideration by the Hall of Fame’s Historic Committee. That would be April Run, whose four U.S. appearances resulted in victories in the 1981 and 1982 editions of the Turf Classic (G1) (the latter by 6 1/2 lengths), a win in the 1982 Washington D.C. International (G1) (also by 6 1/2 lengths), and a second in the 1981 International. Obviously, all four appearances were against males.
Impressive stuff if you ask me.