Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Some Thoughts On the Eclipse Awards, and My Votes

When I became a member of the National Turf Writers Association (now the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, or NTWAB) in 2009, there was a delicious thrill at the prospect of participating in the voting for the Eclipse Awards. Having been in love with horseracing for almost as far back as I can remember, it was a personal achievement to have ‘made it,’ if you will.

My excitement last year quickly fizzled in the ensuing ugliness that erupted in the Rachel Alexandra vs. Zenyatta debate. I use the word “debate” out of politeness; my experience was not pleasant, and the verbal attacks I received and witnessed against both sides is not something I want to go through again, ever. My philosophy is this: I respect your right to have an opinion within reason, and in return I ask that you respect my right to have an opinion within reason. I couldn’t tell anyone who argued for either Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta as 2009 Horse of the Year that their opinion was “wrong,” just as I wouldn’t do that to anyone who opts for Blame or Zenyatta this year. I stand behind and wholly support my candidate, which means that I’m not going to insult anyone’s intelligence by hitting them over the head with my opinion. Ive learned that that approach has a counterproductive effect, and being respectful of each others opinion should not be too much to ask.

There are those who think the Eclipse Awards are meaningless, a dinosaur, that their chief purpose is to enhance stud fee values or the like. Me, well, I believe it is an honor to have one’s achievements recognized in an industry where we have bred pure-blooded horses for hundreds of years in the quest for a superior animal. Claiborne Farm imported Rough Shod (for whom this blog is named) to the United States circa 1951, and from her the Hancock family nursery bred Thong, Thong’s daughter Special, Special’s daughter Bound, Bound’s daughter Liable, and Liable’s son Blame. You can bet that breeding a horse such as Blame from a mare purchased 60 years and five equine generations ago is a pretty big deal to Claiborne – for whom I voted, along with Blame’s co-breeder/co-owner Adele B. Dilschneider, as leading breeder. They have invested 60 years into cultivating the Rough Shod family; do you honestly think an Eclipse Award is meaningless to them?

I worked at Walmac Int’l in 1997, when 2-year-old Favorite Trick was named Horse of the Year. Walmac stood Favorite Trick’s sire Phone Trick and had bought an interest in Favorite Trick early in his juvenile season, so it was doubly meaningful. When that gold statuette – a duplicate of the original, which principal owner Joe LaCombe kept – arrived at the farm, it was…wow!…beautiful. To pick it up and hold it gave me a tangible understanding of what it’s all about. That Horse of the Year statue was placed in the office of Walmac owner and general manager Johnny T.L. Jones Jr. (Sid Fernando has a post on Johnny here.) Amid the smell of cigars, a collection of Western saddles, and a Remington bronze, paintings of Nureyev and Alleged hung over the fireplace and a portrait of Phone Trick was on another one of the cushioned dark green-paneled walls. A small, framed note handwritten in cursive was displayed so inconspicuously on a narrow strip of wall that one might have missed its importance: a thank you letter from Breeders’ Cup founder John Gaines to Johnny for having broken the ice between disagreeing parties and making the Breeders’ Cup a reality. Favorite Trick’s Horse of the Year award sat on the shelf behind Johnny’s desk, where he and any visitor could easily see it, in front of the window overlooking the mares and foals in the front field on Paris Pike. I don’t know if through the years Johnny still noticed the statuette every single time he went into his office, but I know that I did. Perhaps the memory of how it felt in my hands is why the Eclipse Awards are still important to me; if they werent, I couldn’t use my vote.

Horse of the Year Favorite Trick at Walmac in 1998.

I do have some quibbles with the voting process. I question why we are required to list three horses per category – if we fail to do so, our vote will not be counted. The vote is not set up to award, say, five points for a first place vote, three for a second, one for a third; there are no “points” at all, so the only name that counts for anything is in the first field. In many cases, choosing the top horse is simple, and agonizing over who was second- and third-best is not. The killer is that it essentially makes zero difference if I type in Quality Road’s name as second best older male, or if I go with Mine That Bird. If only first place votes are tallied, why the need to rate others? (I am joking about using Mine That Bird, whose best effort this season was a fifth-place finish, to make a point here.)

Another quibble: an award for the sake of an award. The male turf horse category was exceptionally difficult for me this year, not because there was more than one excellent horse, but because there is no clear-cut, truly deserving winner of the 2010 Eclipse. I went back and forth between Gio Ponti and Winchester, and then Paddy O’Prado, and out of frustration very nearly opted for Champ Pegasus. I considered abstaining from the category. In the end I didn’t abstain because someone is going to get the award and I felt like it was my duty to choose; if I had had an option for “no award” I would have taken it.

(I did abstain from the apprentice category; I simply don’t feel I know enough about those young riders to make a qualified decision.)

I would also like to see some of the information on leading owners and breeders laid out differently – not just their totals, but for starters, how many horses did they race or breed that started in the year in question? Obviously, breeding or owning four graded stakes winners from 40 starters is more impressive than eight graded stakes winners from 200 starters.

That there are no guidelines for choosing the best horse is a common complaint against the system, but not for me. I prefer it this way; it gives me a freedom to choose based on whatever criteria in which a horse excelled. Look, I was never into My Little Pony and I promise not to vote for a horse just because it has the prettiest forelock, okay? If the guidelines were “the horse who won the most open Grade 1 races” or “the horse who faced and defeated more Grade 1 winners” or whatever, then a computer may as well calculate the winner. Instead, I get to vote as a person, and as a person who knows what a rush it is to have met the likes of Secretariat, Alleged, Miesque, Affirmed, Forego, Seattle Slew, Nijinsky, Dubai Millennium, John Henry…

And Zenyatta.

Thus, after the long prelude, I arrive at my votes in the equine categories:

2-year-old male:  Uncle Mo
2-year-old female:  Awesome Feather
3-year-old male:  Lookin At Lucky
3-year-old female:  Blind Luck
Older male:  Blame
Older female:  Zenyatta
Sprint male:  Big Drama
Sprint female:  Dubai Majesty
Turf male:  Gio Ponti
Turf female:  Goldikova (this was not as clear-cut for me as one might suppose)
Steeplechase:  Slip Away (this would have been another no vote category)
Horse of the Year:  Zenyatta

You are welcome to a different opinion but please – this is not a forum to be hateful or to argue your case (as I myself have refrained from doing).


  1. The second- and third-place votes are used to determine finalists.

    I abstained from voting in both the Steeplechase and apprentice jockey categories.

    Thanks for sharing your ballot.

  2. That ballot looks perfect to me . May they all be the same .

  3. I enjoy reading your blogs and agree wholeheartedly with you.
    Horse of the Year....Zenyatta!

  4. OK, here's the problem:

    Your borderline "not-within-reason" opinion last year barely beat your "joke" horse by a length. Just because 500 (or 130) blackbirds die doing the same thing, doesn't mean it made sense (or was "within reason") for any individual to die that way.

    If you're too clueless or too disinterested to consider what sorts of "jokes" (your word) your "opinion" is beating then it is quite likely that your "opinion" is not "within reason".

    As you were able to discern not knowing enough and not caring enough about apprentice jockeys to vote in that category this year, clearly you should have applied same to other categories about which you did not know or did not care in 2009!

  5. Some people ....

    Nicely done post.

  6. Yeah no kidding, Frank: "some people"!!!

    Thank you all.