Past the Wire
By Jonathan Stettin
And The Envelope Please
The 2014 racing year is coming to a close. After the Breeders’ Cup – widely regarded as our championship – things sort of wind down until the good three year olds start surfacing early next year. That isn’t to say there is not a lot of good racing left, and with that some championships still to be decided. The Clark, Cigar Mile, and the Malibu have all yet to be run and are all important in their respective divisions. The Hollywood Derby, no longer run at the closed Hollywood Park, took on some added significance this year, with the announcement that California Chrome is likely to make his turf debut in that spot.
Although we have some racing to be done, many of the championships have been locked up by now, so I thought I could get way with some early opining and predictions.
There have been plenty of exciting moments in 2014, not the least of which was a gallant attempt at our elusive Triple Crown by California Chrome. After taking the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in stylish and somewhat dominant fashion, he fell short in The Belmont, Pennsylvania Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic. That leaves the early favorite in a battle for three year old honors with Bayern. Bayern came to hand later than California Chrome but has since proven to be a formidable foe, defeating the Derby and Preakness winner two times on the square in the Pennsylvania Derby and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, against older runners.
Obviously, California Chrome’s connections are feeling the pressure of what earlier in the year appeared to be a slam dunk. Bayern’s connections, on the other hand, are playing it differently. It is hard to know if they are playing for California Chrome to get beat in his late season turf attempt or resting on their laurels after a long season. And you thought chess was only played in the claiming game.
The three year olds were an interesting group this year. The fastest of them all, and quite possibly best, Shared Belief lost his chance at an Eclipse Award, in all likelihood, when he was cut off and body slammed at the start of the Classic. Tonalist, Belmont and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner, ran deceptively well in the Classic but needed a strong win to be considered best by the masses. Hoppertunitty, who looked poised for a nice run in the Triple Crown series missed it due to injury, but may run in The Clark against older. If he wins it’s not enough for any Eclipse consideration but it has to make you wonder what might have been.
We were fortunate to observe a very deep, talented and interesting crop of three year olds in 2014. We haven’t even mentioned Hartford, possibly the best of all of them, Danza, who was everybody’s wise guy horse but still paid telephone numbers in Arkansas, Constitution, Honor Code and Cairo Prince.
After careful consideration, I’d have to vote for Bayern. California Chrome lost three in a row and Bayern won two of those races, one of them against older horses. The Classic featured one of the toughest fields assembled all year, in what is widely considered the toughest race. It was also pointed out by excellent writer and pedigree analyst, Candice Hare (@chare889 on Twitter), that Bayern won the Breeders’ Cup Classic just 10 months after breaking his maiden. No easy task.
The controversy surrounding the start of the Classic surely changed the complexion of the race, but Bayern got home. He wins the photo. With that, and despite his owners’ unsportsmanlike displays at various stops along the road, California Chrome has a loyal following, some of which has votes. He was very good, not the best, but may win anyway. The photo may change, as well, if he is impressive in the Hollywood Turf Cup.
Not all the categories are as tough as three year old male this year. Some are relatively easy based on the merits of the recipients over the year, and some are easy based on what I think has evolved into somewhat flawed voting system. There is either not enough new blood in there, or perhaps voters who are not willing to think outside the box. For example, do we need to discuss and define outstanding jockey and trainer, or can we simply look up who has won the most money this year, and give them the award? Maybe we should call it the most money won Eclipse? At least then it would be accurate. Having won the most money is nice, and quite an achievement, but it should not be an automatic “Outstanding” Eclipse. That thinking robbed Gary Stevens of an award he clearly should have won in 2013 and will probably cost Art Sherman the award this year. Art brilliantly campaigned and managed his horse through the rigors of the Triple Crown, and kept to his own path and plan. After the Pennsylvania Derby when California Chrome ran poorly, and almost everyone gave up on the horse, Art didn’t. He got him back to his “A” race for the Classic. Now he is trying turf with him and depending on that result, Art has made quite the case for outstanding trainer. And he may not have won the most money. Outside the box. He should probably get extra votes for managing certain people too.
Wise Dan was gallant as always and showed his grit and class returning from surgery to maintain his winning ways but he fell short of a Breeders’ Cup three-peat and just didn’t do or beat enough to get the award. It goes to Main Sequence who reeled off four straight Grade 1’s including the Breeders’ Cup Turf. He went undefeated in the US and beat a world class field in the Cup. The turf award is his and rightfully so. It was a shame Rajiv Maragh was injured and did not get to ride him in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. He was three for three on him and deserved the opportunity. John Velasquez stepped in to sub just fine.
While we are talking about Main Sequence and his on track accomplishments, let’s not stop at Turf Horse. Those four straight Grade 1’s pull a lot of weight and should get him the Horse of the Year title. Yes, I know, that was supposed to go to Palice Malice after his undefeated 4 year old campaign, capped off by winning The Breeders’ Cup Classic. The votes were in but then they ran the races. Reminds me of that guy who always tells us they aren’t machines. Palice Malice may very well have been the best older dirt horse, but his season was derailed by injury and it cost him any chance to prove it. I am pleased that he, along with many of the good three year olds we’ve mentioned, will be back next year. That makes for some exciting racing.
The two year olds sorted themselves out pretty nicely. No two year old filly in the land showed the burst of speed Lady Eli did, regardless of what surface they ran on. Texas Red did on the track, in the biggest two year old race, what all the rest – and there are a lot of them – hope to do.
Work All Week earned the Sprint in workman like fashion. Out of the limelight much of the year, the Illinois-bred just kept on winning and running faster. His trainer Roger Brueggerman is old school and has been around a long time and finally got a much deserved huge win. He probably will see his horse get the Eclipse for his step-it-up dazzling performance in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. The field was stellar and many were sure going in that they were better than him, but not quite so sure coming out. Speaking of Brueggerman, the voters should look at some of his off the claim statistics, and how he campaigned Work All Week to a championship not many expected. How about showing an old timer some love around voting time? After years of being wrongly labeled a claiming trainer, Roger showed everyone if you can train, you can train. You just need a horse. Oh yeah, he didn’t win the most money.
Untapable dominated the three year old fillies division all year and capped that off with a win in the Distaff against older. Her name is the surest to follow “and the envelope please.” Some say she should be considered for Horse of the Year. I’m not one of them.
It seemed to take Wesley Ward forever to get that long overdue first Grade 1 win, however I don’t think anyone ever doubted it would come or that he is that type of trainer. He had a Breeders’ Cup worthy of meriting consideration for trainer of the year. Oh yeah, we don’t go outside the box regardless of the accomplishment. Wesley will have to be satisfied with his Breeders’ Cup accomplishments and training Judy the Beauty, who won the Filly Sprint and, along with it, the Eclipse.
Now we get to some really tough calls. Not because of what they’ve done, but what they haven’t done.
I am not a fan of giving an award for the year to a horse off of one race but what can you do with the older filly turf. Dayatthespa won when it counted and beat who she had to. It’s not like anyone dominated or really even led the division early. She stole the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf and with it likely the Eclipse Award. There are better turf fillies than her, but that’s why she stole it.
Close Hatches proved that guy who keeps telling us they aren’t machines may be on to something here. She dominated early in the year winning race after race in fine fashion. She looked a shoe in for older filly champion. The wheels seemed to fall off in the fall with subpar races at Keeneland and in the Breeders’ Cup. While she didn’t live up to the hype of the undefeated season, she didn’t have too. Nobody emerged and took it from her. Untapable won beat her in the Distaff but she’s the three year old champ. Close Hatches hangs on. And they say the early races aren’t important.
Older male leaves us in a similar position. Palice Malice failed to fulfill the dream season expectations. The problem is he left the door open but no older male horse came in. His early year races at Gulfstream and Belmont were as good as any of the older horses all year. He hangs on.
I don’t know if they publish a list of the Eclipse voters but, if not, they should. If they do, I have never seen it. Along with the Kentucky Derby points system, it could use a tad of tweaking. Maybe we can more clearly define or perhaps even restrict the qualifications and guidelines. Should we consider requiring a number of starts in the US? Possibly, and this could be worked into an incentive to keep horses in training and holding off on the breeding shed.
While they don’t take wagers at the Eclipse Dinner, it’s great to watch the stars of our game rewarded and celebrated.
Jonathan Stettin is the author of Past The Wire, a weekly racing column that holds no punches in tackling issues in the racing industry. Jonathan currently resides in Florida. He is a lifelong handicapper with several large Pick-6 scores to his name, including one for $540,000+ on August 10, 1994, at Saratoga.