November 28, 2021

Some Eclipse Award divisions offer few likable choices

Marley's Freedom scores in the Ballerina Stakes (G1) at Saratoga under jockey Mike Smith on August 25, 2018 (c) NYRA/Adam Coglianese Photography

Eclipse Award voters are encountering a bit of everything in this year’s equine divisional races.

There are, of course, the slam dunk choices: Game Winner (juvenile colt), Justify (three-year-old colt), Monomoy Girl (three-year-old filly), Accelerate (older dirt male), Roy H (male sprinter), and Zanjabeel (steeplechaser) arguably qualify.

Next up are more contentious races involving two well-qualified candidates: Jaywalk vs. Newspaperofrecord (juvenile filly) and Enable vs. Sistercharlie (turf female).

At the bottom of the pile are three divisions where someone will obviously win, but a holding of the nose is required to pick one. Let’s start with perhaps the least aromatically offensive.

I’ve never been a fan of the female sprint category, and this year’s race is yet another case in point. The two leading contenders are Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint (G1) upsetter Shamrock Rose, whose only other graded win was restricted to three-year-olds and who started the year with three straight losses in minor stakes company. The other is Marley’s Freedom, a disappointingly-wide fourth in the Filly and Mare Sprint as the odds-on choice but whose record the remainder of the season was fairly solid.

I tend to give more emphasis to head-to-head results when the two horses in question bring similar credentials to the table, but this is certainly not the case between these two. Marley’s Freedom won the Desert Stormer (G3), Great Lady M (G2), Ballerina (G1), and Go for Wand (G3), placed in the Santa Monica (G2), and missed in the Breeders’ Cup by a half-length.

Shamrock Rose won the Raven Run (G2), the La Lorgnette around two turns at Woodbine, and the Malvern Road at Presque Isle Downs for Pennsylvania-breds in addition to the Breeders’ Cup. She also placed in the Cicada and Weber City Miss. Only one of her starts, the Breeders’ Cup, was open to older horses.

To me, Marley’s Freedom did more in better division races than Shamrock Rose and is more deserving, much like La Verdad was over her rivals in 2015.

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Abel Tasman (inside) gamely defeated Elate in the Personal Ensign (G1) at Saratoga on August 25, 2018 (c) NYRA/Adam Coglianese Photography

With respect to the older dirt females, it’s disappointing that fillies like Elate and Fault didn’t have fuller campaigns, or that Wow Cat couldn’t have pulled off another win in the Shuvee (G3) or something. Perhaps they might have provided clarity where there is now muck.

The race seemingly boils down to Abel Tasman vs. Unique Bella. Last year’s three-year-old champion, Abel Tasman beat better rivals when taking the Ogden Phipps (G1) and Personal Ensign (G1), but ended her season in putrid fashion. It reminded me of the situation 31 years ago with North Sider, who ended her championship campaign finishing 10th in the Ruffian H. (G1), ninth in the Spinster (G1), and last of six in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1).

Unique Bella, last year’s female sprint champion, had a more appealing campaign of three wins in four starts, but the quality of those fields do not stand up to scrutiny. When La Force is your main competition in the Beholder Mile (G1) and Clement L. Hirsch (G1), well, how Grade 1 were they?

Many voters, I’m sure, will take the “G1” designations at face value and back Unique Bella. I can’t make the case that she met any of the better fillies and mares of the division and beat them at any point of her campaign, and we all kind of knew at the beginning of the year that the division would go through Abel Tasman and Elate.

If North Sider could win, Abel Tasman can. It’s one of the least appealing choices I’ll have ever made in this process, and I wouldn’t even fault (heh) those who find the super horse Abstain a more qualified choice.

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Expert Eye rallies to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) under Frankie Dettori at Churchill Downs on November 3, 2018 (c) Churchill Downs/Coady Photography

The turf male category is also a mess. There was no U.S.-based standout either among milers or those in the 10-12 furlong range.

Glorious Empire‘s excellent win in the Ft. Lauderdale (G2) on December 15 might sway votes in his direction as it was his third graded win of the year following a dead-heat score in the Bowling Green (G2) and the Sword Dancer (G1). He’s obviously a better horse than we saw in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), but how much better? Robert Bruce is another who ran poorly in the Turf but whose record otherwise was decent enough, including wins in the Arlington Million (G1) and Fort Marcy (G3).

There’s been talk of Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) winner Stormy Liberal, but are we really at a point where we have to stoop and go with a sprint specialist when none of his ilk are likely to be considered viable candidates for this honor again for a long time to come if ever?

Historical precedent has generally favored European one-and-dones in situations like this, but the only alternative here is Expert Eye, who some feel captured one of the weakest renewals of the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1), and narrowly at that.

I agree with that assessment. Nor was Expert Eye considered among the top flight runners in Europe. He captured the Jersey (G3) at Royal Ascot and the City of York (G2) at York, placed in the Greenham (G3), Sussex (G1), and Prix du Moulin (G1), and was up the track in the 2000 Guineas (G1).

I wouldn’t put up a mental fuss if Glorious Empire happened to pull more votes, but my selection on top will be Expert Eye, whose seasonal record on paper is no better or worse than, say, Cozzene’s in 1985. That champion and Breeders’ Cup Mile winner’s only other claims to fame that season were wins in the Oceanport H. (G3) and Longfellow H. (G2) at Monmouth, hardly championship-type races at the time.

Here’s hoping 2019 will have fewer opaque divisional races.