(Originally published in the January 23, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)
The 2009 Eclipse Awards, which were awarded Jan. 18, included championships for age categories, as well as for sprint and grass specialists, male and female. However, one category was missing from consideration. Unlike the year-end awards presented in Australia, Hong Kong, and Europe, the Eclipse Awards offer no specialist category for long-distance runners, or stayers.
This oversight dates back to 1936, when Daily Racing Form first began naming annual champions. In those days champion-caliber horses were expected to be able to win races of 1 1/2 miles and longer, as well as the “classic” distances of one mile to 1 1/4 miles. By contrast, sprinters were considered specialists that could not be expected to compete for Horse of the Year or other divisional honors. However, enough sprinters showed sufficient talent to warrant their own category.
Over time, the idea that would-be champions needed to put their stamina to a long-distance test went out of fashion. True “stayers” remained: horses usually lacking early speed, but having the stamina to remain in contention and grind down their opponents going long. However, no championship category was offered for them; instead, distance specialists simply fell off the radar as the sport and the breeding industry emphasized speed and precociousness. Major long-distance races such as the Saratoga Cup and Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) were shortened. Pure stayers became relegated to the claiming ranks, or optional-claiming, ungraded “marathons.”
Turf racing has served as a last refuge for horses with staying pedigrees, where they form essentially a niche within a niche. Even on the grass, however, stamina is being de-emphasized. Prominent races such as the Man o’ War (gr. I) have been shortened; the 13?4-mile San Juan Capistrano Handicap struggles to maintain its grade II status; and the Arlington Million (gr. IT), second in importance only to the Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT), is only 1 1/4 miles.
In 2008 the Breeders’ Cup introduced the Marathon—initially 1 1/2 miles; in 2009 it was lengthened to 1 3/4 miles. Several additional distance races were created, and other established races lengthened, to serve as preps for the new race. A “Marathon Division” was instituted, using the standard Breeders’ Cup point system to track contenders. However, there has been no move toward instituting an Eclipse Award divisional championship.
To help correct that imbalance and give due recognition to those horses that best represent the qualities of stamina and durability in the Thoroughbred, Left Coast Racing (leftcoastracing.com) has instituted the unofficial Champion Stayer Award. The title of Champion Stayer is awarded annually to the horse whose performances in North America at distances of 1 1/2 miles or more, on dirt, turf, or synthetic surfaces, are deemed to be superior to its rivals. This is determined using a point system similar to that used by the Breeders’ Cup.
Based on the final standings for 2009, the unofficial title of Champion Stayer is awarded to Cloudy’s Knight.
Owned and bred by S J Stables, Cloudy’s Knight came under the care of trainer Jonathan Sheppard early in the year. The now 10-year-old gelding’s biggest previous victory had been the 2007 Pattison Canadian International (Can-IT), but he had struggled since then and a tendon injury threatened to end his career. Sheppard gradually nursed him back to health with long, slow gallops and jumping exercises. His past racing record and the stamina he showed in his workouts indicated that he might still excel at longer distances.
Cloudy’s Knight’s 2009 campaign didn’t actually start until September, when he won the 1 1/2-mile Kentucky Cup Turf Stakes, his first race in more than a year, and his first win in almost two years. One month later he won the 1 1/2-mile Sycamore Stakes. His connections then decided to take a chance and aimed him toward the Breeders’ Cup Marathon. The gamble almost paid off, with Cloudy’s Knight losing by a nose. He went on to win the 1 3/4-mile Valedictory Stakes at Woodbine, and finished the year with a win in the W.L. McKnight Handicap at 1 1/2 miles.
Other horses running in distance races may have better overall talent, or competed in higher-class events. However, none of them were as consistent a stayer as Cloudy’s Knight. His record of four wins and a second in five races of 1 1/2 miles or more, on both turf and synthetic surfaces, in less than four months, is enough to earn him recognition as the best pure stayer in North America.
Erwin Wodarczak writes about racing at his blog, www.leftcoastracing.com, from his home in Vancouver, Canada