The 2011 racing season officially came to an end Monday in California with the Eclipse Awards. Save a few categories, the ceremony was almost as anticlimactic as the racing was last year. Whether or not your favorite horse won last night or not, I think most of us will agree that 2011 was one of the most uneventful years in recent memory. If that sounds too harsh, the Eclipse Awards was the perfect reminder that last year's handicap division, turf divisions for both sexes, and 3-year-old males were some of the most uninspiring we've seen in many years. Injuries and early retirements certainly played a large part in that, but it was our reality nonetheless. Here's to 2012 making up for what 2011 was not.
As far as the ceremony goes, let me say that thank heavens they made a wise choice to have Jeannine Edwards host the show. She was the perfect host--classy, polished, knowledgeable, funny, and passionate--and she helped make up for an amateurish production that reminded me of a 1980s local cable show. I said helped. The awkward pauses and silences between segments, long periods of black TV screen, frequent interruptions and skipping as if we were watching on a poor web server, the same ads that were run over and over again, and an overall boring presentation made a long ceremony that is usually a yawner, nearly impossible to get through. I was watching on HRTV, but some people told me that the webcasts on DRF and NTRA were riddled with stoppages and interruptions, making it very difficult to follow. From what I heard, HRTV picked up the telecast at the last minute in order to save the industry the embarrassment of having it untelevised. If that's the case, it sure looked like a last-minute production.
Here's an idea: Just scrap the ceremony altogether. Going forward, they should just name two award winners each day for a week. That's how they do it in baseball. Gold Glovers one day in the National League, Gold Glovers in the American league the following day; Cy Young winners in each league on other days, MVPs in each league after that. The Eclipse Awards ceremony has been a boring, second-rate production for many years now. Last night reinforced that more than ever.
Of the few highlights that I saw, one came from Cot Campbell, who earned the Eclipse Award of Merit and gave a passionate and inspiring speech. Even retired and at 84, it is still evident that Campbell loves this industry and put everything he had into it.
I also thought John Doyle, who was honored as the National Handicapper of the year after winning last year's championships in Las Vegas, gave a nice little acceptance speech. His enthusiasm for the game really came across and he reminded us all that it's the horses and the horse players that are the lifeblood of this sport. Too often the latter is overlooked, and Doyle did a nice job of pointing that out in an inspired speech.
Bill Spawr and the Amazombie crew were easily the most animated group of winners. It was nice to see (and hear) their enthusiasm and real joy when winning. Spawr's speech was entertaining to watch.
As far as the award winners, the voters had a pretty easy time this year. There were only a handful of categories that took some critical thinking and research. I would have voted for Game On Dude for Older Horse, but I was Ok with Acclamation winning. He was deserving. Musical Romance winning by such a large margin for female sprinter was surprising too, as was Hansen in 2-year-old male, but I was fine with both of them too.
The two categories where voters failed were 3-year-old male and trainer. I like both Animal Kingdom and Bill Mott, so it is nothing personal against either. But when you look at the numbers, it was pretty clear that wrong horse and person won in both categories.
As far as 3-year-old male, Animal Kingdom defeated Caleb's Posse by three votes. I genuinely felt bad for the connections of Caleb's Posse, especially small-time breeder/co-owner Don McNeil and trainer Donnie Von Hemel, who is a class act and did not do one bit of lobbying for the award. Unfortunately, that may have cost Caleb's Posse in the end.
Caleb's Posse was one of two 3-year-old males to win two grade I races in 2011 (The Factor was the other). He raced 10 times, won five of them including four graded stakes, defeated champion Uncle Mo in a prestigious grade I sprint at Saratoga, destroyed the field in the grade I BC Dirt Mile, which included Eclipse Award finalist Shackleford, and raced at seven different racetracks at five different distances. When compared to Animal Kingdom, he won two more races, one additional grade I, and raced a complete season. Those that voted for Animal Kingdom did so obviously because they thought in a weak year he won the most important race for 3-year-olds. But the horse did not race beyond June 11. The only time I can give a pass to a horse that raced only half the year is if he won at least two Triple Crown races, just as Smarty Jones did in 2004. Yes, Animal Kingdom did show up in all three Triple crown races, but he won only one. If voters wanted to reward a horse for running the entire Triple Crown they should have voted for Shackleford. He did so too, won one of them, and still ran a full season.
Where is the rule that says a 3-year-old has to run in the Classic races to win an Eclipse Award? This year, voters rewarded horses like Amazombie, Hansen, Musical Romance, and Royal Delta for winning their all-important Breeders' Cup races, and Bill Mott for winning two races. But when it came down to 3-year-old male, those that voted for Animal Kingdom said that BC Dirt Mile was not important enough. In doing so, Animal Kingdom joins Prairie Bayou as the only other 3-year-old male to win an Eclipse Award with just a single grade I victory to his credit.
In the trainer category, Mott obviously won because he had a superb November when he scored the biggest Breeders' Cup races on both days and had a phenomenal six-week run at Churchill Downs and Aqueduct. But let's look at the numbers:
Mott had about $10.7 million in earnings, which was well below that of the other two finalists, Bob Baffert ($14.1 million) and Todd Pletcher ($17.1 million). He also had significantly less wins (101) than the other two 130 Baffert, 254 Pletcher), and his win percentage of 17% was much lower than Baffert (26%) and Pletcher (25%). When compared to Baffert, Mott sent out 578 starters compared to 503. Yes, Mott actually had more starters than Baffert.
More glaring was the fact that Pletcher won 43 graded stakes and Baffert 28, compared to Mott's 15. And Baffert had an incredible 11 grade I victories, more than double that of Mott and Pletcher. In summary, Baffert had a monster year from January to December. You could make a strong case for Pletcher too, but Baffert, who also had a Breeders' Cup win by the way, was your deserving Eclipse winner this year. Take nothing away from Mott, who is unarguably one of the best trainers we've ever seen and is a classy guy, but his two Breeders' Cup wins should not have trumped a year's worth of excellence from the other two candidates, especially Baffert.