March 24, 2023

Ranking Eclipse Award Winners: Champion Older (Dirt) Male

Cigar with Jerry Bailey up wins 1995 Breeders Cup Classic

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. We’ll highlight the 3-year-old males on Dec. 28 and two other divisions daily from Dec. 29-31.

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.

J. Keeler Johnson (@J_Keelerman) concludes the series with the past 50 campaigns produced by the older dirt male division, which was open to both dirt and turf horses from 1971-2014:

  1. Cigar (1995)

How can you top a 10-for-10 campaign spanning from January through October, with highlights including eight Grade 1 wins and a decisive triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1)? No Eclipse champion older male before or since has compiled a season as thoroughly dominant as Cigar.

  1. Spectacular Bid (1980)

Undisputed superhorse went 9-for-9 during his championship season, counting five Grade 1 wins on his glowing resume. In the Charles H. Strub (G1), he set a still-standing American record of 1:57 4/5 for 1 1/4 miles on dirt. And in the Woodward (G1), no one dared oppose him—he won in a walkover.

  1. Affirmed (1979)

Though Affirmed suffered a couple of early-season defeats, the 1978 Triple Crown winner bounced back with seven straight victories (including six Grade 1 wins) to end the season. He twice ran 1 1/4 miles in less than 1:59 and ended the season with a tenacious victory over Spectacular Bid in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1).

  1. Forego (1974)

A four-time champion older male, Forego’s first championship season was arguably his best. Packing 13 starts into nine months, Forego won seven graded stakes and displayed astonishing versatility when nabbing the 7-furlong Vosburgh H. (G2) and the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup in back-to-back starts.

  1. Alysheba (1988)

Half a dozen Grade 1 wins, multiple victories over reigning Horse of the Year Ferdinand, track records at Belmont Park and the Meadowlands, and a season-ending triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. You can’t ask for much more from a champion older male.

  1. Forego (1976)

Although Forego started just eight times in 1976, he made the most of his (relatively) limited opportunities. Carrying between 130 and 137 pounds in all of his stakes races, Forego added four more Grade 1 wins to his Hall of Fame resume, including heart-pounding triumphs in the Metropolitan H. (G1) and Marlboro Cup H. (G1).

  1. Accelerate (2018)

Some will argue Accelerate didn’t defeat the toughest competition, but his impressive 6-for-7 season produced victories in the Santa Anita H. (G1), Gold Cup at Santa Anita (G1), Pacific Classic (G1), Goodwood (G1), and Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). For the record, that includes four Grade 1 wins over the classic distance of 1 1/4 miles. Even when compared to durable champions of the 1970s and 1980s, Accelerate’s season stacks up strongly.

  1. John Henry (1981)

Equal success on dirt and turf defined John Henry’s championship season. Five Grade 1 wins (three on turf, two on dirt) plus a dramatic triumph in the inaugural Arlington Million demonstrated his durability and versatility.

  1. Skip Away (1998)

Although Skip Away faltered in his final two starts of the season, including a sixth-place effort in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he’d previously won seven consecutive graded stakes. Five of them were Grade 1 events, and Skip Away twice carried upward of 130 pounds to victory.

  1. Curlin (2008)

Victories in the Dubai World Cup (G1), Stephen Foster H. (G1), Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup enabled Curlin to become the first horse in North American history to eclipse $10 million in earnings. His only defeats for the year came when racing on turf and synthetic, including a runner-up effort in the Man o’ War (G1) behind former Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) winner Red Rocks.

  1. Gun Runner (2017)

A runner-up effort in the Dubai World Cup marked Gun Runner’s lone loss from six starts. His four Grade 1 wins for the season culminated with victory against a deep field in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). It’s a toss-up between Curlin and Gun Runner for the #10 slot, but Curlin gets the nod for his multi-surface ambitions.

  1. Forego (1975)

Another season, another four Grade 1 wins. Forego was still at the peak of his powers in 1975, winning from 7 furlongs to 1 1/2 miles while carrying 131 pounds or more on half a dozen occasions. A victory over champion 3-year-old Wajima in the Woodward cemented Forego’s championship claims.

  1. California Chrome (2016)

Had California Chrome battled to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he would have ranked clearly in my Top 10. But losing by half a length (in an otherwise unblemished 6-for-7 season) left the two-time Horse of the Year with just three Grade 1 wins for 2016, a little light compared to the similar resumes of Curlin and Gun Runner.

  1. Invasor (2006)

Four straight Grade 1 wins, culminating with a hard-fought triumph against an elite field in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Invasor ran only five times during his championship season, but he picked his spots and made them count.

  1. Forego (1977)

Forego’s final championship campaign was light by his own lofty standards, but top-level triumphs in the Metropolitan H. and Woodward H. and runner-up efforts in the Suburban H. (G1) and Brooklyn H. (G1) were particularly impressive since he toted between 133 and 138 pounds in all of his stakes appearances. His weight-carrying heroics give him a slight edge over Skip Away (1997) and Cigar (1996).

  1. Skip Away (1997)

The culmination of Skip Away’s 1997 campaign was breathtaking, marked by blowout victories in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic. But he was beaten in five of his nine starts (albeit while facing top company) and won just two Grade 1 races overall.

  1. Cigar (1996)

Though not quite as dominant in 1996 as in 1995, Cigar nevertheless won the inaugural Dubai World Cup plus the Woodward and Donn H. (G1) before ending the season with narrow defeats in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

  1. Wise Dan (2013)

The undisputed king of turf milers capped off a 6-for-7 year with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1), his fourth Grade 1 success of the season. He did face easier competition than Skip Away and Cigar, but Wise Dan’s sheer brilliance and lofty accomplishments still stack up favorably.

  1. Slew o’ Gold (1984)

Although Slew o’ Gold missed the first half of 1984, he quickly made up for lost time during the second half, rattling off wins in the Whitney H. (G1), Woodward, Marlboro Cup H., and Jockey Club Gold Cup before losing the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Classic by just a half-length with a troubled trip.

  1. Seattle Slew (1978)

The 1977 Triple Crown winner wasn’t quite unbeatable as a 4-year-old, with victories in the Marlboro Cup H. and Woodward ranking as his only Grade 1 wins. But he deserves significant bonus points for beating 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed on two occasions, and for carrying 134 pounds to an easy victory in the Stuyvesant H. (G3).

  1. Blame (2010)

Although Blame is most famous for upsetting supermare Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he also won the Stephen Foster H. and Whitney H. during a brief but productive 4-for-5 campaign. Had he raced a bit more frequently, he could have ranked even higher among Eclipse champion older males.

  1. Main Sequence (2014)

Four starts, four wins. Main Sequence didn’t run often, but all of his victories came against Grade 1 company, including a win over future champion turf male Flintshire in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

  1. Ferdinand (1987)

Although Ferdinand suffered six straight defeats during the first half of his championship season, he put everything together during the second half, counting victories in the Hollywood Gold Cup H. and Breeders’ Cup Classic on his record. In the latter race, Ferdinand showed tenacity to beat champion 3-year-old and future Horse of the Year Alysheba by a nose.

  1. Saint Liam (2005)

Over the course of nine months, Saint Liam ran six times and recorded four top-level successes, including a well-measured win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He didn’t beat the toughest foes (certainly none the caliber of Alysheba), but overall his campaign was productive and hard to knock.

  1. Gio Ponti (2009)

Turf star Gio Ponti also won four Grade 1 races during his championship season, matching the totals put up by Main Sequence and Saint Liam. But whereas the latter two recorded season-defining Breeders’ Cup wins, Gio Ponti was beaten to second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

  1. Criminal Type (1990)

Established champions Sunday Silence and Easy Goer were among Criminal Types victims in the Hollywood Gold Cup H. and Metropolitan H., two of the four Grade 1 wins he recorded while crisscrossing the country in 1990. Unfortunately, an ankle injury suffered when sixth in the Woodward H. led to his retirement before the Breeders’ Cup.

  1. Wise Dan (2012)

Wise Dan’s first championship season was similar to his second, with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Mile capping off a near-perfect 5-for-6 run. But a defeat in the Stephen Foster H. limited him to just three Grade 1 wins for the year.

  1. Black Tie Affair (1991)

Black Tie Affair might not have been as flashy as runners like Ghostzapper or Mineshaft, but the front-running speedster put together a durable 1991 campaign, counting victories in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Philip H. Iselin H. (G1) among his seven graded stakes wins. He gets bonus points for durability and for closing out the year with a victory in North America’s richest race.

  1. Ghostzapper (2004)

One of the most brilliant horses to ever set foot on a racetrack, Ghostzapper set a still-standing stakes record when cruising to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). But posting just two Grade 1 wins from a brief 4-for-4 season leaves Ghostzapper with a relatively light resume.

  1. Mineshaft (2003)

Seven wins from nine starts, with a runaway romp in the Jockey Club Gold Cup capping off four Grade 1 wins for the season. But ankle chips prompted Mineshaft’s retirement prior to the Breeders’ Cup, a missing element from his otherwise impressive resume.

  1. Ack Ack (1971)

A bout with colic prevented Ack Ack from racing beyond July of his championship year. But after winning seven of his eight starts in a 6 1/2-month span—including such important prizes as the Hollywood Gold Cup H. and Santa Anita H.—the speedy front-runner was a deserving choice as champion older male.

  1. Bertrando (1993)

Bertrando was at his best late in the summer, posting dominant victories in the Pacific Classic (G1) and Woodward. But he was a force to reckon with all year long, placing second in four other important Grade 1 tests, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).

  1. Pleasant Tap (1992)

A star on the New York circuit, Pleasant Tap successfully transitioned from sprinter to router over the course of his 1992 campaign. Victories in the Suburban H. and Jockey Club Gold Cup featured prominently during a season that also included runner-up efforts in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Woodward, and Metropolitan H.

  1. Tiznow (2001)

Although Tiznow missed most of the spring and summer with back issues, he never missed the trifecta in six starts against Grade 1 and Grade 2 company. During the winter he won the Santa Anita H., and by fall he was back to his best with a victory against a deep field in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, becoming the only horse to win North America’s richest race on two occasions.

  1. Improbable (2020)

Though Improbable only ran five times, victories in the Hollywood Gold Cup, Whitney, and Awesome Again (G1)—coupled with a runner-up effort in the Breeders’ Cup Classic—will almost assuredly carry him to championship honors at the 50th Eclipse Awards.

  1. Turkoman (1986)

Turkoman compiled a season similar to Bertrando, Pleasant Tap, and Improbable, following Grade 1 victories in the Widener H. and Marlboro Cup with a second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). But with fewer placings against Grade 1 foes, Turkoman has to rank a bit lower on the list of champion older males.

  1. Vanlandingham (1985)

Although Vanlandingham faltered at a short price in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the remainder of his 1985 campaign was a rock-solid display of talent and versatility. Dominant victories in the Suburban H. and Jockey Club Gold Cup on dirt preceded a gutsy win in the Washington D.C. International (G1) on grass.

  1. Lemhi Gold (1982)

Blowout victories in the San Juan Capistrano H. (G1), Marlboro Cup H., and Jockey Club Gold Cup gave Lemhi Gold three Grade 1 wins for the season. Though something of a hit-or-miss runner with a handful of disappointing runs on his record, Lemhi Gold was equally effective on dirt and turf and a force to reckon with on his best day.

  1. Bates Motel (1983)

Bates Motel could have made a run at Horse of the Year honors after winning the San Antonio H. (G1), Santa Anita H., and Monmouth H. (G1) during the first eight months of the year. But while narrow defeats in the Woodward and Marlboro Cup H. were sufficient to give him champion older male honors, they couldn’t quite carry him to the golden Eclipse Award.

  1. Vino Rosso (2019)

Triumphs in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Gold Cup at Santa Anita gave Vino Rosso two Grade 1 wins for the year, with placings in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Whitney further enhancing his resume.

  1. Honor Code (2015)

Like Vino Rosso, Honor Code won two Grade 1 events during his signature season, nabbing the Metropolitan H. and Whitney with big late rallies. But he could only manage a third-place effort in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, giving Vino Rosso the more comprehensive resume.

  1. Lawyer Ron (2007)

Lawyer Ron started off in similar fashion to Honor Code, with a pair of top-level successes in the Whitney H. and Woodward  ranking as the highlights of his season. But whereas Honor Code cracked the trifecta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Lawyer Ron faltered to finish seventh in the year-end championship, a blemish on his otherwise solid record.

  1. The Wicked North (1994)

A suspensory injury suffered when fourth in the Hollywood Gold Cup H. brought The Wicked North’s season to a premature conclusion, but earlier victories in the Santa Anita H., Oaklawn H. (G1), and Californian (G1) were sufficient to land him the championship title.

  1. Acclamation (2011)

Turf or synthetic, Acclamation was equally good over both surfaces, counting victories in the Charles Whittingham Memorial H. (G1), Eddie Read (G1), and Pacific Classic among five consecutive graded stakes wins. But he didn’t face the toughest competition and missed the Breeders’ Cup with an injury, preventing him from ranking higher.

  1. Lemon Drop Kid (2000)

During the summer of 2000, Lemon Drop Kid was unstoppable, recording consecutive wins in the Brooklyn H. (G2), Suburban H. (G2), Whitney H., and Woodward. But fifth-place efforts in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic brought him back to earth and limit him from ranking higher.

  1. Riva Ridge (1973)

Although Riva Ridge was a bit inconsistent in 1973, he did count the Brooklyn H. among three graded stakes wins, and a runner-up effort behind superhorse Secretariat in the Marlboro Cup cemented his status as the season’s champion older male.

  1. Blushing John (1989)

Blushing John wasn’t quite up to beating the top sophomores of 1989, but he did finish third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) after previously winning the Hollywood Gold Cup (G1) and two other graded stakes, compiling a respectable if not stellar season.

  1. Autobiography (1972)

With 14 defeats from 19 starts, Autobiography lost more often than he won during a very busy season. But he put everything together late in the year, crushing champions Key to the Mint and Riva Ridge by 15 lengths in the Jockey Club Gold Cup to claim the division title.

  1. Victory Gallop (1999)

A suspensory injury led to Victory Gallop’s retirement shortly after prevailing by a nose in the Whitney H., his lone Grade 1 win during a 3-for-4 season.

  1. Left Bank (2002)

Sadly, a bout with colic led to Left Bank’s death in October 2002. Through no fault of his own, Left Bank’s championship season was limited to just four starts and single Grade 1 against elite competition in the Whitney H.