By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
Every year, after the Breeders’ Cup, I spend some time handicapping the Eclipse awards, considering the various candidates for each title and trying to determine which horses will earn recognition as champions of the season. It’s always a fascinating topic to ponder, but particularly so this year because many of the categories are wide-open and contentious. By my count, six of the eleven categories listed below do not have a stand-out favorite to win, which should make for some great debates and conversations in the lead-up to the Eclipse awards. It could also place additional emphasis on the remaining two months of the year, as horses that might be on the outside looking in for winning a title could add to their credentials with a victory in a late-season graded stakes race.
But with the Breeders’ Cup still fresh in our minds, here are my thoughts on the leading contenders in eleven of the Eclipse award divisions…
2yo Male: We’ll start with a tricky category. Texas Red could not have been more impressive winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I), but that was his only stakes victory of the year, and he was trounced by American Pharoah in their lone meeting. At this point, I would give the edge to American Pharoah off his wins in the Del Mar Futurity (gr. I) and FrontRunner Stakes (gr. I), although if Texas Red comes back to win a late-season grades stakes (such as the Los Alamitos Futurity), that could shift things in favor of the Breeders’ Cup winner.
2yo Female: This is another tricky category. Take Charge Brandi scored a massive upset in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I), but was soundly beaten in three of her four other graded stakes engagements. Keeping this in mind, I think Lady Eli deserves consideration as the champion juvenile filly. After all, she won the Miss Grillo Stakes (gr. III) in dominating fashion prior to her romp in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (gr. I), and her perfect 3-for-3 record is impressive. But again, things could change if Take Charge Brandi were to cap off her season with another graded stakes victory, such as the grade II Golden Rod at Churchill Downs.
3yo Male: California Chrome was the king of the spring, but Bayern beat all in the fall. Which colt takes home this award will depend on what voters value more—success in the spring classics or the Breeders’ Cup Classic. California Chrome was very impressive sweeping to victories in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), Preakness Stakes (gr. I), Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), and San Felipe Stakes (gr. II), but lost his final three starts of the season. Bayern began slowly with losses in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I), Derby Trial (gr. III), and Preakness Stakes (gr. I), but then won four of his last five starts, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), Haskell Invitational (gr. I), Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II), and Woody Stephens Stakes (gr. II). In head-to-head meetings, Bayern beat California Chrome twice—in the Classic and the Pennsylvania Derby—while California Chrome beat Bayern once, in the Preakness. To me, this title is a toss-up. I would go with California Chrome off his early-season triumphs and near-miss in the Classic, but either colt is fully deserving of the honor, and I wouldn’t mind seeing a tie!
3yo Female: I think this title will be won in unanimous fashion by Untapable, who won four grade I races this year, including the Kentucky Oaks and the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
Older Male: I understand the argument that this title should be reserved for the best older dirt horse of the year, but since the older dirt horses took turns beating each other all year, and since the ones that made it to the end of the year were crushed by the three-year-olds in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, I think Main Sequence deserves to win this title. His victory in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. I) was impressive, and his perfect 4-for-4 campaign (all in grade I company) is striking. There has been talk that he might end his season in Japan or Hong Kong, and should he achieve the hugely difficult task of winning a foreign group I race, I think he deserves to be a hands-down winner of this title.
Older Female: Close Hatches may have disappointed in her final two starts of the season, but she also won three grade Is earlier in the year, and with the three-year-old Untapable winning the Distaff, I think Close Hatches has done enough to retain her leadership of this division. The only other mare I would consider for this title is Judy the Beauty, who won the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (gr. I), Madison Stakes (gr. I), Las Flores Stakes (gr. III), and Rancho Bernardo Handicap (gr. III) during a campaign that saw her go 4-for-5.
Male Sprinter: Talk about a wide-open category! Believe it or not, Palace was the only male horse to win more than one grade I sprint race this year, and although he finished sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, his overall consistency during the season probably gives him an edge for winning this title. The other logical candidate for the award is Work All Week, who won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I), Phoenix Stakes (gr. III), and two listed stakes at Prairie Meadows and Oaklawn Park. Personally, I would go with Palace, but let’s wait to see what happens in the Cigar Mile (gr. I)—more of an elongated sprint than anything else—before making up our minds.
Female Sprinter: As mentioned above, Judy the Beauty had a spectacular season in some of the nation’s best filly and mare sprint races, and I believe she is a standout to win this title.
Male Turf Horse: I love Wise Dan, and his four graded stakes wins (including three grade Is) would win this title in most years, but after Main Sequence swept through the year unbeaten in four grade Is, I think he deserves to win this award.
Female Turf Horse: Dayatthespa only started four times this year, but won three stakes and scored two grade I victories, including a season-defining triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf. Stephanie’s Kitten had a fine season as well, winning the Flower Bowl (gr. I) and finishing second in three other grade Is, but her head-to-head loss against Dayatthespa in the Breeders’ Cup will probably cost her the title.
Horse of the Year: I think this is a battle between Main Sequence and Untapable, with California Chrome and Bayern likely to receive some support as well. Untapable went 6-for-7 over the course of the season, but her lone loss—a distant defeat against colts in the Haskell Invitational—may cost her some support. At this point, I think Main Sequence is the front-runner for the title, albeit by a narrow margin. But again, if he wins a race if Japan or Hong Kong at the end of the year, I think that would make him a shoe-in to emulate Wise Dan with a sweep of Champion Turf Horse, Champion Older Male, and Horse of the Year.
Who do you think should win each Eclipse award?