As I’ve said in years past, I really try to have solid reasoning for my top choices as a voting member of the National Turf Writers And Broadcasters. My choices for second and third aren’t pulled out of the hat, but I don’t spend as much time on them as only first-place votes really count, and the others are just used to establish lists of finalists.
Also, as with years past, some of these are obvious, and some make you wish the category didn’t exist – either because the nominees have similar records or there just isn’t one among them that you really can embrace. For this posting, I’ll leave the obvious horses for (almost) last. Humans follow the horses.
1. Curalina, 2. I’m a Chatterbox, 3. Lovely Maria. Why: This was the most difficult decision. If I’m a Chatterbox isn’t disqualified at Saratoga in the Coaching Club, she probably gets my vote. I’m not sure my vote was ever determined by what happened in the steward’s stand (unless you count my votes last year where I chose to ignore the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic because of the non-DQ there), but that’s what happened this year. Curlina narrowly has the best resume in a group where no filly overwhelmed as a clear and convincing honoree. (Lady Eli could qualify except for her unfortunate injury. Also, Found and Lady Eli are discounted, in my view, as turf runners. If a turfer now, by rule of the Eclipse steering committee, can’t be best older male or female, I’ll extend that logic to the sophomore categories as well. Turf categories are for 3-year-olds and up, and, by extension, sophomores have to beat the older horses to be a grass champion.)
1. Wavell Avenue, 2. Cavorting, 3. La Verdad. Why: Again, no overwhelming resume, so I defaulted to the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint winner.
Older dirt male
1. Tonalist, 2. Honor Code, 3. Liam’s Map. Why: Solid resumes in this category with a number of defensible choices, especially the top two that both have three graded wins and two Grade Is. If not for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Jockey Club Gold Cup carries more weight for me, and Tonalist gets my vote. He was on the board in every other race, save the Classic. Honor Code has an impressive pair of Grade I wins in the Whitney and Met Mile, but was fifth in the Alysheba. This is kind of a coin toss. I wouldn’t fault anyone picking Honor Code (and hope I’m not faulted for giving the edge to Tonalist).
1. Dawalan, 2. Bob Le Beau, 3. Demonstrative. Why: The top two split in their head-to-head races and are both defensible choices, but Dawalan gets the edge.
Male Turf Horse
1. Big Blue Kitten, 2. Flintshire, 3. Highland Reel. Why: The most consistent debate for Eclipse voters is probably how much overseas racing should count in voting for an American championship. The only rule is a horse must have run stateside once. Here is an example where international resumes probably are stronger, but I tend to defer to an American horse that has a sufficient resume. Big Blue Kitten, with three graded wins, two Grade Is and no finish worse than 2 3/4 lengths behind the winner meets the criterion for my vote. Like above, I wouldn’t fault anyone’s vote here. Golden Horn was the most consistent and just missed in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Highland Reel looked good on four continents, including winning against older at Sha Tin. Flintshire was consistent too.
Female Turf Horse
1. Tepin, 2. Stephanie’s Kitten, 3. Hard Not to Like. Why: A category that is an embarrassment of riches. Stephanie’s Kitten fits the traditional prototype for this category with two Grade I wins, including the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf. But the miler Tepin has three Grade Is, including the Mile – which arguably has overtaken the Turf in stature – and gets my vote. Tepin visually was most impressive, at least for me.
Older Dirt Female
1. Beholder, 2. Sheer Drama, 3. Wedding Toast. Why: While the talk focuses on what might have been had she run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, her resume – as it is – still is very impressive. A very deserving winner. (Stopcharginmaria isn’t in my top three despite winning the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. See above about my votes for second and third generally. Also, my votes for runners up each had two Grade I wins compared to the Distaff winner’s one.)
1. Runhappy, 2. Rock Fall, 3. Wild Dude. Why: The Malibu win made the virtual lock for champion a sure-fire lock.
1. Nyquist, 2. Swipe, 3. Brody’s Cause. Why: A clear-cut winner. Swipe gets my nod for second as the consistent runner-up to the sure-thing champ.
1. Songbird, 2. Rachel’s Valentina, 3. Dothraki Queen. Why: But for American Pharoah and Beholder, she’d be a Horse of the Year contender in some years.
1. American Pharoah, 2. Keen Ice, 3. Dortmund. Why: First Triple Crown since I was 7 years old. Game, set, match.
Horse of the Year
1. American Pharoah, 2. Beholder, 3. Tepin. Why: No explanation needed. The Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Classic combo sets a modern standard for equine excellence.
Now for the humans, with my first-place votes and explanations …
Bob Baffert. Why: The sport’s best big race trainer had another spectacular year.
Zayat Stables. Other owners would have retired American Pharoah when he left the winner’s circle at Belmont Park. The Zayats get credit for running the sport’s first Triple Crown winner in almost four decades through the end of the year in a campaign that is one of the greats in history. (Sticklers will question not running against older horses, but the Breeders’ Cup Classic makes the point moot. As one of my favorite University of Kentucky professors said years ago, history is written by the victors.)
Zayat Stables. See above.
Victor Espinoza. Triple Crown pilot Espinoza gets my vote narrowly over Mike Smith, who rode Songbird.