My Eclipse Award ballot largely comports with the finalists announced on Saturday, and only a few of the discrepancies raised an eyebrow.
Mo Forza came as a bit of a curveball as a finalist in the turf male category. Obviously Bricks and Mortar is a mortal lock to win the divisional honors, and likely Horse of the Year as well. My fellow voters were likewise casting about for suitable candidates to round out our mandatory top three. I ranked sprinter World of Trouble second, a popular choice in light of his perfect season that unfortunately ended in the Jaipur Invitational (G1) where he beat the eventual Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) exacta, Belvoir Bay and Om.
After that, however, it was a case of take your pick in an evenly matched bunch, regardless of distance. I included Annals of Time on the basis of his Sword Dancer (G1) victory over the usual suspects, although he was sidelined before trying to back it up. In the circumstances, I can see why voters would grasp the lifeline offered by a streaking Mo Forza – but I couldn’t go there myself because he didn’t step outside the sophomore stakes ranks. That’s no knock on his considerable potential in this division in 2020, just a sticking point for me trying to sift through 2019 rankings underneath a superior Bricks and Mortar.
Horse of the Year
Maximum Security was the Horse of the Year finalist I didn’t quite expect. Although the Kentucky Derby (G1) demotee beat older horses twice, and got my top vote for champion 3-year-old male, I didn’t see him as that far ahead of his contemporaries by season’s end. Accordingly, I left him off my Horse of the Year ballot.
While Maximum Security had a 2-0 edge over Code of Honor, both meetings came in the spring. Code of Honor progressed through the second half to win the Travers (G1) handsomely, and whether you agree or not with his Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) elevation via disqualification, the fact remains that Code of Honor battled eyeball to eyeball with the leading older male router, Vino Rosso. It’s unfortunate that Code of Honor struggled with the Santa Anita surface in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), winding up a too-bad-to-be-true seventh behind Vino Rosso in the only poor race of his life. Ideally, we would have gotten a rematch between a more mature Code of Honor and Maximum Security at some point – not to mention a clash with Omaha Beach. Maximum Security compiled the best overall body of work in the division, but there were enough loose ends lying around to make me stick to older horses for Horse of the Year.
After the clear-cut choice of Bricks and Mortar for the golden statuette, I gave second ranking to Mitole for his brilliant one-turn campaign. Third was a jump ball that went to Vino Rosso for his superior record at the American classic distance. (I voted for Vino Rosso for champion older dirt male honors for the same reason, preferring routers in that category, while Mitole was far and away champion male sprinter.)
I expected Midnight Bisou to be among the finalists, and when the first-place votes are announced, she might well have gotten more support than her omission here implies. Her Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) loss likely weighed against her Horse of the Year candidacy, especially since she stayed in female company all season. Her near-perfect campaign richly warrants the champion older dirt female Eclipse, but for me, the overall depth of form didn’t quite stack up to Horse of the Year.
In an inscrutable 2-year-old male division, you could make a case for just about any permutation of candidates. It was no surprise that Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) winner Structor was among the finalists, but he wasn’t on my ballot. Granted, the dirt juveniles did not manage to sort themselves into any clear pecking order. Yet to me, Structor’s Breeders’ Cup win was more a tale of trips than a decisive display, and not enough to dislodge my preference for the traditional dirt in this category.
Indeed, the problem with the juvenile males was that several dirt runners had pretensions on their best day, and their claims were not satisfactorily resolved on the racetrack. I ended up giving benefit of the doubt to Storm the Court, not only for winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), but for improving in first-time blinkers that at least gave a rationale for his form reversal. That doesn’t mean I’m suddenly enthusiastic about his prospects on the Kentucky Derby trail, just that he’s credited for putting up his performance in what’s become the divisional benchmark race. I freely admit that it was aided by the flops and miscues of more brilliant rivals in Eight Rings, who’d trounced him in the American Pharoah (G1), and Dennis’ Moment, who never had a chance after a nosedive at the break.
Had there been one alternative to the Juvenile winner – e.g., like Shared Belief in 2013 – I would have rallied to that standard-bearer. Maxfield gave the strongest case for such a jury nullification, whipping a solid cast in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1), but others could be viewed in a similar vein. Thousand Words beat the Juvenile runner-up Anneau d’Or in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2). Tiz the Law’s Champagne (G1) was terrific, until his Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) reverse, and Independence Hall looked incredible while beating little in the Nashua (G3). With several talented runners who didn’t make the Juvenile, it was difficult for me to judge confidently which one was best. Maxfield got my “honorable mention” as second on the ballot, but I would have felt unjust to Storm the Court to deny him the top spot barring a preponderance of evidence in favor of another.
Thankfully, the 2-year-old fillies were more straightforward. British Idiom followed up her Alcibiades (G1) romp with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) to seal the title. That said, I feel for Bast who wasn’t helped by how the Breeders’ Cup unfolded.
The omission of Joel Rosario from the finalists was a little surprising. Irad Ortiz Jr. and Javier Castellano were my one-two, but included Rosario on my ballot. His two Breeders’ Cup wins came aboard horses I voted as champions – Covfefe and Uni – and his Belmont (G1) ride was a master class. To me, Rosario’s major wins on the whole outranked those of Eclipse finalist Jose Ortiz, whom voters presumably included since he finished second to brother Irad on the earnings table. Irad is likely to win in any event, but I thought Rosario deserved a mention.
For the record, I voted for Covfefe as champion female sprinter but did not put her on top in the 3-year-old filly category. As with the older dirt male rankings, my general preference is to recognize performers who excel in the division’s traditional events that aren’t sprints. Guarana captured two of the time-honored prizes for sophomore fillies – the Acorn (G1) in sensational style over Kentucky Oaks (G1) winner Serengeti Empress (who missed narrowly to Covfefe in the Test [G1]) and the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) over the useful yardstick Point of Honor. So I gave Guarana the nod in the chronological category while honoring Covfefe for her sprint specialty.
In the champion turf female division, Uni’s Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) verdict over Got Stormy was enough to way me in her direction. Although each beat the other once, I believe that Uni’s best was just a little better than Got Stormy’s best. Sistercharlie received my third vote in recognition of her body of work, boosted by a suspicion that she wasn’t seen to best effect in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1).
Come Eclipse Awards night on Jan. 23, and the revelation of the first-place votes in all divisions, we’re sure to have more fodder for discussion.