In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Eclipse Awards, Brisnet staff and contributors have delved into the history of the past five decades of champions and come up with individual thoughts on the best, and not so best, among most of the equine divisions since 1971.
For the marquee divisions of champion 3-year-old male and champion older dirt male, we’ve ranked the campaigns 1 through 50. For five other select divisions, our experts highlight what they believe were the top 10 and bottom 10 campaigns.
Vance Hanson (@VPHanson) concludes the series with his top 10 and bottom 10 older (dirt) females.
So many of the fillies and mares awarded the championship of the older division since 1971 have made the Hall of Fame that to single out only 10 campaigns is not only extraordinarily difficult, but also means some undoubtedly qualified ones have had to be excluded. By the same token, such an ordinarily strong division as this one has yielded relatively few borderline champions.
1. PERSONAL ENSIGN (1988)
Not only was her legendary rally against the odds in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) a climax to a perfect season, but also to a faultless, injury-filled career. Although she had little competition for honors in her own division, a score over the loose-on-the lead sprint champion Gulch (who could get 1 1/8 miles) in the Whitney H. (G1) suggests she could have been just as flawless against stronger male rivals.
2. LADY’S SECRET (1986)
Bringing it each and every time for a span of 15 races, from January to November coast-to-coast, is something the likes we haven’t seen since and most likely never will again. Ten stakes wins for the season, a record for any winner of this title, included a victory over males in the Whitney and a similarly dominant score in the Ruffian H. (G1) under 129 pounds, in which she conceded 20 to the runner-up. Secretariat’s best daughter also out-finished the older male champion, Turkoman, in their only meeting.
3. ZENYATTA (2010)
We sometimes learn more about a horse at a low point than we do at a high one. That she almost grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat after digging herself a tremendous trench in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) was arguably more a testament to her quality than her exploitative triumph in the 2009 edition over Santa Anita’s synthetic surface. The rest of the season was more of what she had had already been producing — flawlessness but with a few extra heart palpitations thrown in.
4. GLORIOUS SONG (1980)
After winning three Grade 1s against fellow fillies on both coasts, she spent the remainder of her season, from May onwards, facing the boys with remarkable success and consistency. Summertime wins at Detroit and Woodbine (one of which was on turf) were followed by seconds in the Amory L. Haskell H. (G1) at Monmouth and Marlboro Cup (G1) at Belmont. She was beaten less than two lengths in the former by Spectacular Bid, that season’s invincible Horse of the Year.
5. RELAXING (1981)
Perhaps the most aggressively campaigned of any of this award’s winners, this future dam of Easy Goer made five of her seven starts that season against males. She won two of them, and was beaten less than a length by Horse of the Year John Henry at the end of the 1 1/2-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1). The daughter of Buckpasser was a perfect 2-for-2 against her fellow ladies, winning the Delaware H. (G1) and Ruffian H.
6. LATE BLOOMER (1978)
This largely forgotten Greentree homebred would have been eminently qualified for a turf award as well if one had existed (a turf female Eclipse was instituted in 1979). After dispensing with grass sharks Waya and Pearl Necklace in three Belmont grass fixtures, she lorded over Pearl Necklace some more, as well as the best the 3-year-old division had to offer, on the main track in the Del ‘Cap, Ruffian, and Beldame (G1). From a surface perspective, one of the most versatile female champions this country has ever produced.
7. BEHOLDER (2015)
Although she couldn’t keep her appointment for the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland, the fact she was viewed as the leading threat to American Pharoah says much. It was entirely all courtesy of a devastating, 8 1/4-length triumph in the Pacific Classic (G1), unquestionably one of the most remarkable from a filly against males this century. Truly a filly to behold.
8. BAYAKOA (1989)
Aside from one flub at Del Mar, a track that in retrospect she never seemed particularly fond of, this Argentinean great was virtually flawless while tallying top-level victories at nearly every important circuit with her customary, tongue-waving panache. An eight stakes-win season was punctuated in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff over a deep group of 3-year-olds that included Gorgeous and champion Open Mind.
9. ZENYATTA (2008)
The legend that would become her had its start this year, the longest of her three consecutive championship campaigns. After making a laughing stock of reigning champion Ginger Punch in the Apple Blossom H. (G1), she’d become a death-and-taxes habitué of any winner’s circle she walked by until the final start two years later. Over this gifted class she began towering soon after commencing her career.
10. PRINCESS ROONEY (1984)
Although her season got off to a slow start, the remarkable finish of it narrowly edges out some amazingly qualified candidates. Virtually untouchable at the very end, she was perhaps the star of the inaugural Breeders’ Cup at Hollywood Park when drumming the Distaff field by seven lengths in a 1 1/4-mile time that was 1 1/5 seconds faster than the Classic run just an hour later.
And now selections for the Bottom 10…
31. LIFE’S MAGIC (1985)
About as dominant a winner the Breeders’ Cup Distaff has ever produced, but that score was one of only a couple highlights in a long season for the previous year’s 3-year-old champion. Unplaced in three of four starts facing the boys and no factor in one attempt on the turf, her main track record against division foes was a lackluster 8-2-2-3.
32. AMBASSADOR OF LUCK (1983)
Although dominant from what little was seen of her, she didn’t have the opportunity to strut her stuff in the more traditional divisional features of that era. None of her three stakes wins — the Molly Pitcher (G2), Ballerina (G3), and Maskette (G1) — were at a distance beyond 1 1/16 miles.
33. GOURMET GIRL (2001)
Although the correct choice off tremendous performances in the Apple Blossom and Vanity H. (G1), her season was over by early August and the modesty of the division was underscored by the fact no viable title contenders emerged in the final months. By its very definition, the campaign ranks among the lower rated.
34. TRACK ROBBERY (1982)
A couple timely wins proved enough for a mare who earned more points for consistency than authority. A nine-length win in the Spinster over the Keeneland slop apparently swayed most voters her way, though her season ended with a whimper and she was hardly a dominant force even at her home base of Southern California.
35. HIDDEN LAKE (1997)
Hardly looked a potential champion until new trainer John Kimmel had her breathing fire through a string of four summer and fall stakes wins in New York. However, she didn’t reproduce those winning tendencies elsewhere and was a complete non-factor in her return to California for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Hollywood, in which she was beaten 22 lengths.
36. CLOSE HATCHES (2014)
A well-spaced and relatively untaxing campaign produced some magnificent highlights, including a game win over a tough field in the Ogden Phipps (G1). But a lack of fortitude was evident by season’s end when a dismal fourth in the Spinster and a last-of-11 finish in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. In retrospect a placeholder for Beholder, who had an incomplete season after suffering an injury when fourth in their Phipps showdown.
37. QUEENA (1991)
A string of four, narrowly-won victories around one turn in New York made her champion-in-waiting heading into that year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Just by finishing five lengths fifth behind 3-year-old Dance Smartly was more than enough to give her top honors, which is saying something about the depth of that year’s division.
38. PROUD DELTA (1976)
Springing from the depths of Aqueduct’s first season of winter racing, her feast-or-famine campaign was largely famine in its second half, though it was not helped by a couple of off-tracks she encountered. A mild surprise in the Beldame over 3-year-old champion Revidere salvaged her fading candidacy.
39. UNIQUE BELLA (2018)
Largely staying put on the West Coast and thus avoiding conflict with other legitimate title contenders, her brief, grade-inflated campaign looked to the electorate the most appetizing of what was left on the plate while offering little in the way of nutritive value. Her season and career were over by late summer, but rivals for the honor proceeded to yield all claims by putting on displays of patented self-destruction in the season’s final months.
40. NORTH SIDER (1987)
A busy, Lukas-style campaign of 17 starts glorified the gap between her and stablemate Lady’s Secret’s 1986 season the longer it dragged on. Won just enough through the first nine months in a down year for the division before the wheels came off completely in her final three starts. Tenth of 13 in the Ruffian, ninth of 13 in the Spinster, and last of six in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff does not a compelling champion make.