The word is out and the postings have begun. The racing year begins in January and follows a smooth procession for 12 months. The prep races, the Triple Crown, the summers at Saratoga, Del Mar, the fall buildup to the Breeder’s Cup, the Breeder’s Cup itself, and then a bit of calm. In early January, the nominees for the Eclipse Awards come out and those who follow the sport of Horse Racing start their campaigns for their favorite horses in each and every category.
Are the awards important? No, they aren’t. They look good, but in reality, the awards are just something to keep the sport relevant during the quiet period that is January and February. In some ways, Horse Racing is like golf; it’s a sport that gets attention only when it’s time to get attention. For Horse Racing, that’s the six week period that begins the week before the Kentucky Derby and ends the night of the Belmont Stakes. The rest of the year is for the fans—the true fans—of the sport. Sure, you’re going to root for your favorite to be named Horse of the Year, Top Filly, Top Older Male and Best Juvenile, but these awards will not be water cooler talk any time soon.
Despite many who have written the sport off, I believe the sport has seen a bit of resurgence over the past decade. I’ve said this many times, but America has changed in their habits and no, I’m not referring to the use of digital and mobile devices. The country is pressed for time and as a result, has become an event nation. Horse Racing has benefited because it can sell the big event. Look at the crowds at the Triple Crown races. Each year, the Kentucky Derby draws over 150,000 to Churchill Downs, and over 10 million people watch the race on TV. The day before, over 100,000 are at Churchill to watch the Kentucky Oaks. Think about that; over one quarter of a million people over two days at a racetrack in Louisville, KY. In addition to the crowds think about the amount wagered across the country. In a word, staggering.
Two weeks later, over 115,000 attend the Preakness Stakes at tired, old and run-down Pimlico in Baltimore. Another big event with another big crowd. Three weeks later, here comes the Belmont with crowds that can range from 45,000 to 110,000 if a Triple Crown is one the line. National attention fades away after the Preakness or Belmont, but the summer season is special, particularly if you get to Saratoga or Del Mar to see the beautiful spectacle for yourself.
Yes, the day-to-day grind of Horse Racing is suffering and truth be told, it will never hold the attention of the American public. The bettors will always be there, wagering and trying to make a score on a February weekday at Aqueduct or Gulfstream, but that’s always been the case. A few times a year, it really is the Sport of Kings but most of the time; it is a “sport for commoners.”
The Eclipse Awards certainly aren’t a bad thing. Like the Oscars, it’s a chance for those who love the sport to dress up, celebrate the year that was, have a good dinner and a fun night out and pay tribute to the best that the sport offered in the past year. There are a whopping 17 categories and the winners will be announced on January 17 at the gala at Gulfstream Park. Like most, I have my favorites and like most, I can offer predictions who I think will win in each category, but if I pick California Chrome over Bayern for Horse of the Year, does that mean that Chrome was better than the Baffert trained Bayern? Furthermore, will Bayern be angry with me if I do that?
Rather than list who I think will win in the 17 categories, I will do what Bill Murray used to do on Saturday Night Live, when he used his magnets to predict who would win the Oscars. He dismissed every award except the three big ones: Best Actor, Actress and Film. Few remember those winners, let alone the rest. So, I’ll take the 17 and reduce it in an effort to save time.
California Chrome has to be my pick for Horse of the Year. He won the Derby, the Preakness, then finished a solid third at the Breeder’s Cup Classic and won a race on turf late in the year. Bayern deserves serious consideration for his performances in the Pennsylvania Derby, and of course his win at the Haskell. He won the controversial Breeder’s Cup Classic even though many thought he should have been disqualified for what he did at the start. I thought it was the right decision not to DQ him, but because he didn’t win the race cleanly, I’ll go with California Chrome.
Untapable will be a runaway winner for 3-Year Old Filly, and frankly, she should have been nominated for Horse of the Year as well. There is a bias against the ladies; sure, she didn’t run well against the boys in the Haskell, but she wasn’t atrocious either like Bayern was in a couple of his races such as the Travers.
For 3-Year Old Male, I will pick California Chrome, because if he’s the Horse of the Year, he has to be the best of the three year olds, too.
The other two awards worth mentioning are Older Male and Older Female, and frankly, these are important categories because as fans, we want to see horses race as long as they can rather than retire and head to the breeding shed. For Older Male, even though his season was truncated due to injury, Wise Dan is my winner even though Palice Malice may have done more. If Wise Dan wins, this will be more of a Lifetime Achievement honor, but the fact remains the venerable Wise Dan didn’t lose in 2014.
Older Female will be a tough one between Dayatthespa and Close Hatches. The latter ripped off four straight wins in the middle of the year while “Spa,” got hot late and won the Breeder’s Cup Distaff. In what will sure be a close vote, I’m taking Close Hatches in because overall, her body of work was a tad better.
Remember, these predictions and $8 will get you tomorrow’s Daily Racing Form, so beware.
Until next time.