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Monday, January 16, 2012

Eclipse Award Predictions and Wistful Thoughts

After what was in many ways an unsatisfying year for American horse racing, I find myself strangely ambivalent about tonight’s Eclipse Awards show—but will certainly watch them online thanks to the Daily Racing Form beginning at 8:00 p.m. Eastern. Unlike the previous two years, there’s not the passion…nay, rabid fervor…behind who is named Horse of the Year, which definitely takes a little fun out of the whole event. That said, I’d be a little disappointed if Havre de Grace doesn’t win, making it three consecutive years when the best horse in America is of the feminine persuasion. Her competition (Caleb's Posse and Acclamation) aren't without fault, so it's a relatively safe bet that she will win. Here are some final thoughts and predictions on what we’ll see tonight:

2-year-old Male:
Not surprisingly, the first third finishers in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (Creative Cause, Union Rags, and Hansen) are the finalists, and history suggests Hansen will win. Does that mean he, or either of the other two for that matter, will win the Kentucky Derby? Doubtful. Although it seems trainer Dale Romans’ plans are for a light prep—the 9-furlong G3 Palm Beach on turf and the 9-furlong G1 Blue Grass on Polytrack—Dullahan is my early Derby pick. To my eyes, this half-brother to Mine That Bird was closing best in the BC Juvenile, and has already proven he’s a distance runner.

2-year-old Female:
Because we are a country unnaturally preoccupied with dirt racing, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner My Miss Aurelia will win this award over her BC runner-up Grace Hall, but for my money Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winner Stephanie’s Kitten will be the one to watch this year—her planned 2012 debut is in the Florida Oaks on February 4.

3-year-old Male:
In such an inconsistent year, it’s very difficult to find a clear winner here. The simple choice is Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, but not for me. Seriously, if you weren’t willing to consider Mine That Bird a winner after his much-better placings in the Triple Crown races, why Animal Kingdom who was done after the Belmont Stakes? Preakness winner Shackleford is a gutsy horse that never stopped trying, but he only won one race all year, defeated by the hard-charging Caleb’s Posse in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. Based on that race, plus his win in the G1 King’s Bishop, Caleb’s Posse (of the three) looks to be the best choice—but he really isn’t winning in the highest level “classic distance” races. In all honesty, I’m floored that Ruler On Ice isn’t among the contenders, let alone the deserving winner! Under the most unlikely of circumstances, he captured the G1 Belmont Stakes, defeating both Shackleford and Animal Kingdom (and don’t give me that lame excuse about Animal Kingdom being impeded early—bull!). Yes, Shackleford beat him in the G1 Haskell, although Ruler On Ice was closing best of all, but the tables were reversed in the G1 Travers. Ruler On Ice put in a very credible second in the G2 Pennsylvania Derby, and then outshined all his fellow 3-year-olds in running third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. As a racehorse whose connections actually ran him (including, unsuccessfully, in the G1 Clark after the Classic), Ruler On Ice is to me the default champion 3-year-old.Too bad the voters didn't see it that way.

3-year-old Female:
This is a category that lost too many promising fillies to injury (especially St. John’s River) or just flat out poor choices, but the three finalists are top-notch. With her Breeders’ Cup victory, Royal Delta wins, but It’s Tricky and Plum Pretty did terrific jobs this year.

Older Male:
A real conundrum here, with the Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Drosselmeyer not even nominated—and I think that’s a shame. No, he wasn’t a threat to subsequent Breeders’ Cup Marathon winner Birdrun in the G2 Brooklyn Handicap—but how many of these “quality” older males even attempted 12 furlongs this year? His connections opted for turf in the G1 Sword Dancer (admittedly a mistake), but his strong closing in the G1 Jockey Club Gold Cup and the BC Classic win should have put him in the running, especially in such an overall weak year. That said, the finalists are Game On Dude, Tizway and Acclamation, the latter whom is being talked about as the likely winner—although probably only as a default because he won’t win in the other category in which he is nominated, Male Turf. I’ve never been a fan of Tizway (although he won the G1 Met Mile and G1 Whitney this year), so I guess of the three I wish Game On Dude got serious consideration. All three finalists share one race—the G3 Charles Town Classic—and Game On Dude finished ahead of the other two carrying far much weight (123 lbs, to Tizway’s 117, and Acclamation’s 114). I like that Game On Dude travelled—after winning the G1 Santa Anita Handicap, he visited West Virginia and Texas, then back in Cali captured the G1 Goodwood before just missing in the Breeders’ Cup Classic back in Kentucky. That BC Classic performance is what puts him over the top in my estimation.

Older Female:
Havre de Grace, hands down. That said, if Blind Luck had stayed healthy...oh, what an autumn it would have been! The G2 Delaware Handicap was the best damn race of the year, bar none! Awesome Maria is a nice (but distant) third-place vote getter, in my estimation.

Male Turf:
Just because you run in and win only one race in America—and it happens to be the Breeders’ Cup Turf—you don’t deserve to win an Eclipse. If St. Nicholas Abbey wins, it is just one more slap in the face to logic and reason, and a crystal-clear example of why there should be exact guidelines (i.e. a set number of races) for being awarded an Eclipse—and one race isn’t it. Cape Blanco should win, having captured three G1 races in the U.S.—the Man o’War, Arlington Million, and Joe Hirsch Turf Classic. Amazing given the propensity for former Dubai World Cup competitors to flop when continuing to race in the same year. There’s going to be a lot of West Coast votes for Acclamation with his three straight G1 victories, yet if you can’t travel successfully outside the state of California, you won’t get many votes from hard-core horse people.

Female Turf:
Even before the three finalists were announced I only had one mare in mind—Stacelita. When you take on male competitors like she did in the G1 United Nations, and then come back to win the G1 Beverly D and G1 Flower Bowl—arguably the two biggest mare turf races in America—you deserve this award. Perfect Shirl’s Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf win was—I’ll say it—a fluke, and the only decent race she ran all year against the “best” female competition (and, let’s be honest, that’s not saying much). Since Stacelita easily defeated Dubawi Heights in the Beverly D, it’s a no-brainer who should win.

Male Sprinter:
As the Breeders’ Cup Sprint champion, Amazombie will be the unimaginative selection, but Caleb’s Posse should give him a run for his money. How bad is the dirt sprint division? The third finalist is Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner Regally Ready who’s already been well-beaten to start this year.

Female Sprinter:
This is a wacky division because Hilda’s Passion will likely win over another lightly-race filly Sassy Image—leaving the much more heavily-raced Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint winner Musical Romance in third-place. That really sucks because, as a fan and an advocate for actually running horses instead of keeping them in the barn and parading them out only on special occasions, Musical Romance and her connections deserve this award.

Probably based solely on the Breeders’ Cup performances of Royal Delta and Drosselmeyer, Bill Mott should win this award, defeating the well-coiffured juggernaut that is Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert. Still, H. Graham Motion should have gotten more consideration by voters if, for no other reason other than being one of the “good-guys” in the sport—oh, and winning the Kentucky Derby with a grass horse.

Ramon Dominguez, Javier Castellano and John Velazquez are three of my favorite “money” jocks, but rather unimaginatively I expect Ramon Dominguez to win, as the top earner and with the best win/WPS percentages. Still, I would have replaced Castellano with Joel Rosario in this conversation, and maybe even Rafael Bejarano instead of John Velazquez (despite his Derby win)—a serious East Coast bias exists in this category, I’m sorry to say.

Every time you turned around, another Kenneth & Sarah Ramsey homebred—many sired by Kitten’s Joy—triumphantly crossed the finish line in 2011. Hands-down winners to me over Brereton Jones and Frank Stronach’s Adena Springs.

Again, to me Kenneth & Sarah Ramsey rule, although strictly based on numbers Midwest Thoroughbreds will probably win. And while Team Valor did have the Kentucky Derby winner, Maggi Moss should have been in the final three—her 495 starters won 34% of the time, and finished in the money 68%! That is a brilliant record.

Enjoy the show!