Sunday, November 20, 2011

Eclipse Awards: The Horses

2011 has been an incredible year of racing, but it was a jumbled mess. Usually by now, each division is wrapped up. However, that is not the case. For final decisions, attention will be on the upcoming Clark Handicap (GI) and other races as well. After a Breeders’ Cup nearly full of longshot winners, the Eclipse Awards have become very confusing. Here we go again.
Horse of the Year
Two-Year-Old Male (in alphabetical order)
Horse of the Year may not be a battle between two closely matched horses this year, but Two-Year-Old Male is. The finish of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) was quite similar to last year’s Classic between Blame and Zenyatta. The voting just might be the same as well.
Photo by Mary Cage
Hansen: The striking silver colt held off Union Rags by a head to prevail in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Prior to the Breeders’ Cup, the son of Tapit dominantly won a maiden special weight and the Bluegrass Cat Kentucky Cup Juvenile Stakes at Turfway Park in monster performances. Yes, he won the championship race, but it was a very narrow margin that was diminishing. Also, his win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile was his only graded stakes win. Hansen is definitely an extremely talented horse and his championship win may win him the award, but the colt he narrowly defeated may get revenge and win the award instead.
Union Rags: Union Rags looked like one of the most likely winners over Breeders’ Cup weekend. However, it was not to be. After drifting out in the stretch, the Michael Matz trainee missed by a head. He clearly was not handling the track, which cost him the race. Yet he still galloped out plenty ahead of Hansen and was finishing more strongly. Prior to the Breeders’ Cup, Union Rags was undefeated. Two of his three wins prior to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile were graded: the Three Chimneys Saratoga Special Stakes (GII) and the Champagne Stakes (GI). It is a tough choice and both colts are very deserving of the title. It will be a very close call in this division.
Two-Year-Old Filly
This one is simple:
My Miss Aurelia: She’s undefeated, a two-time grade one winner, and the dominant winner of the championship race for this division. My Miss Aurelia, a filly I've followed since before her maiden, is the 2011 champion Two-Year-Old Filly.
Three-Year-Old Filly
This division is simple also:
Royal Delta: Royal Delta dominantly defeated other top three-year-old fillies in two of the most important races of the year, the TVG Alabama Stakes (GI) and the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (GI). With her effortless win in the Ladies’ Classic, Royal Delta clinched 2011 champion Three-Year-Old Filly.
Three-Year-Old Male (in alphabetical order)
This has become one of the toughest decisions in all divisions of the Eclipse Awards. Though only three are mentioned here, there were plenty of other talented three-year-old males, including Shackleford and Stay Thirsty. It will be a tough decision for voters.
Animal Kingdom: He is the victor in the most prestigious race of the year: the Kentucky Derby (GI). That speaks for itself, but the colt was not just successful in the Derby. He won the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (GIII) by two and three-quarters lengths prior to winning the Derby. After the Derby, Animal Kingdom finished a persevering second in the Preakness Stakes (GI). In the Belmont Stakes (GI), his chances of winning the race were shattered when he nearly lost the rider at the start. He came out of that race with an injury, so he has not raced since. However, Animal Kingdom was clearly the best three-year-old of the year. Therefore, he deserves this award. Read more about him in The Return of the Kingdom.

Caleb's Posse
Photo by Mary Cage

Caleb’s Posse: After his dominant win in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (GI), Caleb’s Posse has surely garnered plenty of votes. He picked up two grade one wins this year: the Dirt Mile and the Foxwoods King’s Bishop Stakes (GI). He also won the Smarty Jones Stakes, the Ohio Derby (GIII), and the Amsterdam Stakes (GII). He may have won five times this year (three more than Animal Kingdom), but he also raced twice as many times as Animal Kingdom was able to. The key in choosing between them is prestige and consistency. Animal Kingdom was more successful in prestigious races than Caleb’s Posse and only finished out of the money once, which was understandable, as it was when he was impeded in the Belmont. Caleb’s Posse, on the other hand, finished out of the money three times. He’s talented, but he’s no Animal Kingdom. I think it will be a close call between Animal Kingdom and Caleb’s Posse that will go to Caleb’s Posse. I believe that Animal Kingdom is the better horse, but since he was only able to race for the first half of the year, Caleb’s Posse took the lead.
Ruler on Ice: The only way Ruler on Ice is capable of being crowned as the champion three-year-old is if he wins the upcoming Clark Handicap (GI). Even then, it will be tough for him to be voted the champion. His only stakes win this year came in the Belmont when he won at nearly 25-1. However, he has been very consistent this year. He has only finished out of the top three once and that was a fourth place finish in the Travers Stakes (GI). He will need a dominant Clark victory to be voted the champion in this division.
Turf Female (in alphabetical order)
Here’s yet another fairly wide open division. Like many of the other divisions, the horse that seemed to be the standout failed to live up to expectations.
Dubawi Heights: Two grade one wins, a second place finish in another grade one, a grade three win, and a sixth place finish in the Emirates Airline Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf (GI) might garner this filly the award for champion female turf horse. However, her loss in the Beverly D. Stakes (GI) to Stacelita may keep her from that title. From my standpoint, however, she performed much better than Stacelita did when it counted most. In the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, Dubawi heights finished sixth, beaten less than three lengths while Stacelita finished tenth of eleven, beaten nearly six and one-half lengths. The winner of that race was Perfect Shirl, who at nearly 28-1 will not get the award. Of the top contenders for Turf Female in the race, Dubawi Heights ran the best. I’d vote for her.
Never Retreat: She won five graded stakes this year, including the First Lady Stakes (GI) at Keeneland last out. She won half of her races and was out of the money just twice. After defeating a talented field in the First Lady, her earnings for the year totaled $872,288. The main flaws on her 2011 résumé are her disappointing finishes in the Churchill Distaff Mile Stakes (GI), won by Aviate, and in the Beverly D. Stakes (GI), won by Stacelita. She's a talented mare, but her poor finishes in those races may keep her from winning this title.

Stacelita: This French-bred has run her last four starts in the United States. In her first start in America, Stacelita ran third against males in the United Nations Stakes (GI). She then dominantly defeated talented turf females in two grade ones: the Beverly D. and the Flower Bowl Invitational Stakes. However, she turned in an extremely lackluster performance in the race that would have clinched this award for her, the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf. That dull performance in the championship race tells me someone else should be the champion.
Winter Memories: This striking gray showed the most brilliance this year. However, she only won one grade one, the Garden City Stakes. Yet she won three straight graded stakes: the Appalachian Stakes (GIII), the Sands Point Stakes (GIII), and the Lake George Stakes (GII). She only lost two starts this year: the Woodford Reserve Lake Placid Stakes (GII) and the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Stakes (GI). She finished fourth in both. She and Dubawi Heights have the least amount of losses of these four fillies. However, as talented as Winter Memories is, Dubawi Heights has more prestige on her résumé.
Dubawi Heights has as many grade one wins as Stacelita and finished much better than Stacelita did in the Breeders’ Cup. I believe she deserves this award, but Stacelita’s dominance prior to the Breeders’ Cup may wrap up this award for her.
Turf Male (in alphabetical order)
We’ve seen two very talented turf males reel off win after win in 2011, but on separate coasts. However, a bias will keep one horse from getting it over the other.
Acclamation: It’s unfortunate that a horse can win five straight graded stakes, three of which are grade ones, and not win an Eclipse Award. However, that’s what happens when there’s another horse that has won three straight grade ones and came from Europe. Let’s focus on the winner of five straight first. Acclamation had a disappointing start to the year, but after a tenth place finish in the Charles Town Classic in the slop, the five-year-old returned to the turf. He won the Jim Murray Handicap (GII) at Hollywood Park for the second year in a row, dominating the field by seven lengths. He then reeled off wins in the Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap (GI), the Eddie Read Stakes (GI), the TVG Pacific Classic Stakes (GI), and the Clement L. Hirsch Turf Championship Stakes (GII). An injury knocked him out of the Breeders’ Cup Turf (GI), which if he’d have won, he’d have sealed this award. Acclamation has two major knocks against him:  voters tend to go for East Coast horses over West Coast horses (Acclamation made all but one of his starts in California this year) and only two of his grade one wins were on turf, the other having come on the synthetic. He won’t get this award, but he definitely does deserve some award after his tremendous year in 2011.
Cape Blanco: Cape Blanco’s final three starts came in the United States. All three of them were grade one turf victories. After coming from Europe, where he was a group one winner twice in 2010, Cape Blanco dominated turf males in three of our most prestigious grade ones. In his first start stateside, he defeated two-time champion turf male, Gio Ponti, by a decisive two and one-quarter lengths in the Man o’ War Stakes (GI). Next out, Cape Blanco did the same by an extra quarter of a length in one of the most prestigious turf races in the United States, the Arlington Million Stakes (GI). Over very boggy turf going in his final race, Cape Blanco battled with Dean’s Kitten to prevail in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational Stakes (GI). He came out of that race with a career-ending injury, which, like Acclamation, kept him out of the Breeders’ Cup. Though he did not win as many in a row as Acclamation, he won more grade ones on turf and voters are more likely to give the edge to a European that won three grade ones in America. This award is Cape Blanco’s for the taking.
Older Female
A simple vote:
Havre de Grace: This is simple. Havre de Grace will be named Older Female of 2011. However, it must be pointed out that Blind Luck is the better horse. In their six meetings, Blind Luck defeated Havre de Grace four times. Yet, Havre de Grace has much more on her résumé this year and will come away an easy winner of this division and likely Horse of the Year as well.
Older Male (in alphabetical order)
The older male division was one of the most jumbled of 2011. Each one of these horses is likely to garner votes and it will be a tough call for voters.
Acclamation: As mentioned, this horse deserves some award, but he’s unlikely to get this one, despite the fact that he has more grade one wins than the dirt horses in this division. Here’s to hoping he comes back just as good next year to win an Eclipse Award!
Cape Blanco: With talented dirt males in this division, Cape Blanco likely won’t get this award, even though he has more grade one wins this year. He is very talented, but he’s likely to only take home the Turf Male award.
Flat Out: As the favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Flat Out did not live up to expectations, finishing fifth. However, he has a good body of work over the year to assist him in winning this award. Kicking off the year with a fast-closing second in the Lone Star Park Handicap (GIII), Flat Out finished a disappointing sixth in the Stephen Foster Handicap (GI) at Churchill Downs. Afterwards came his breakthrough performance: a dominating win in the Suburban Hanidcap (GII). After that spectacular win, the son of Flatter turned in two second place finishes in grade ones, finishing second behind Tizway in the Whitney Invitational Handicap and placing second behind Havre de Grace in the Woodward Stakes. Flat Out’s first grade one win came in the Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes (GI), which was his final prep for the Breeders’ Cup. He is expected to run in the Clark Handicap (GI) on Friday. If he wins that race, choosing the winner of this division becomes even harder.

Game on Dude (in the blue) and Flat Out (in the red)
Photo by Mary Cage

Game on Dude: Drosselmeyer will likely garner some votes in this division, but not enough to win. So, discounting Drosselmeyer, Game on Dude had the best Breeders’ Cup finish of all horses in this division. He was just caught in the final strides of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which if he’d have won, he would have clinched this award and Horse of the Year. On his 2011 résumé are two grade one wins: a victory in the Santa Anita Handicap and a triumph in the Goodwood Stakes. Just a scant nose kept him from a third grade one win in the Hollywood Gold Cup. The only race in which Game on Dude failed to finish in the top three was the Pacific Classic Stakes (GI), in which the Bob Baffert trainee finished fourth over a track surface he didn’t handle well. He also finished second in the Charles Town Classic Stakes (GIII) and third in the Lone Star Park Handicap (GIII), the latter of which he finished behind Awesome Gem and Flat Out. Though Flat Out defeated him there, Game on Dude defeated him by nearly two lengths when it counted most: the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI). Game on Dude is the deserving winner of Older Male and if Flat Out does not win the Clark, this award will likely go to Game on Dude.
Tizway: Like Game on Dude, Tizway has two grade one wins in 2011. However, a fever kept him out of the Jockey Club Gold Cup and an injury kept him out of the Breeders’ Cup. He only ran four times this year, finishing third in both the Gulfstream Park Handicap (GII) and the Charles Town Classic Stakes (GIII), the latter of which he finished behind Duke of Mischief and Game on Dude. Tizway then went on to record victories in the Metropolitan Handicap (GI) and the Whitney Invitational Handicap (GI). He defeated Flat Out in the Whitney. Though he is a very talented horse, I don’t think he has enough credentials to win this award.
Male Sprinter (in alphabetical order)
There were many talented sprinters this year, but by the conclusion of the Breeders’ Cup, the top two emerged. It is clear which one will win this award, due to prestige and amount of grade one wins.

Photo by Mary Cage

Amazombie: Though there were plenty of other good sprinters in 2011, Amazombie will be the champion sprinter. With two grade one wins – including a championship win – and a grade two win, Amazombie will come away the Male Sprinter of 2011.
Regally Ready: He’s a very worthy candidate, but with one less grade one win than Amazombie and a less prestigious Breeders’ Cup win, Regally Ready will be outvoted by Amazombie.
Female Sprinter (in alphabetical order)
This award was supposed to be Turbulent Descent’s for the taking, but when an underdog by the name of Musical Romance stepped in and won the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, she made quite the case for herself.
Musical Romance: This filly ran a remarkable fourteen times this year, eleven of those starts coming in Florida. After a string of five fourth and fifth place finishes that lasted from January to April, Musical Romance has not finished out of the money since. She won three stakes in Florida this year and finished second or third in three others, including a second place finish in the Princess Rooney Handicap (GI) at Calder. Her starts outside of Florida were very successful. In her first start outside of Florida this year, she won the Presque Isle Downs Masters Stakes (GII). Racing against very talented fillies and mares in the Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes (GII), she missed first by just a head, finishing second to Holiday for Kitten. Then came her shining moment: an impressive victory in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (GI). She may be disrespected for being a Calder-based horse, but I don’t see any point in that. She ran fourteen times this year and had a tremendous year that was capped off with a championship victory. She deserves to be Female Sprinter of 2011.
Turbulent Descent: She won two grade ones this year, but only one came at a sprinting distance. After finishing second in the Las Virgenes Stakes (GI), she won the Santa Anita Oaks (GI). Neither were sprint races. She then began her sprinting path. She won the seven furlong Beaumont Stakes (GII) prior to finishing second in the TVG Acorn Stakes (GI). After a very impressive victory in the Test Stakes (GI), Turbulent Descent became the favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint (GI). However, she ran poorly when it mattered most and finished fifth. Her brilliance prior to the Breeders’ Cup may allow her to win this award, but I think Musical Romance is the deserving winner here.

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