As we flip to the last calendar page of 2016, naturally our focus turns to something we haven’t thought about for quite a while—elections.
In the world of Thoroughbreds, it’s time to collect our thoughts and mull over the year that was as we prepare to crown Eclipse Award winners via the ballot box.
Thankfully, many of the eventual champions earned their trophies as the sport has envisaged over the past 33 years—winning Breeders’ Cup World Championships races. So it seems settled that Classic Empire (juvenile male), Champagne Room (juvenile filly), Songbird (who wrapped up 3-year-old female honors before being nosed by Beholder), Beholder (older female), and Drefong (male sprinter) will be rewarded. In a complex year for 3-year-olds that saw none of the classic winners (Nyquist, Exaggerator, Creator) still active come crunch time, Arrogate’s Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) victory lands him on top of the heap. California Chrome, like Songbird, had done enough to win his hardware (older male) long before his rider lost his rearview mirror at Santa Anita.
In contrast, the turf divisions for both genders and the female sprint category are anyone’s guess.
The most fascinating race, however, looms in one of the human divisions—the season’s top trainer. There is no Triple Crown winner nor even a multiple classic winner on which to hang a ribbon this season. From our vantage point, this shapes up as a two-horse race between the East Coast (Chad Brown) and West Coast (Bob Baffert). While Baffert has already collected four Eclipse trophies, Brown has been in the money but has yet to put his nose on the wire first. If this were indeed a horse race, Brown would have opened a clear lead at the eighth pole only to see Baffert fly down the stretch near the wire.
Brown, the Cornell University graduate who cut his teeth assisting Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel, went out on his own in 2008 and has been in ascension since. His 2016 season has been his finest yet, highlighted by his first Saratoga training title. As of Nov. 28, Brown’s seasonal earnings of $22,583,582 lead the nation by $2.5 million over Todd Pletcher, who has sent out nearly 400 more starters this year than Brown. Baffert, who has started a bit more than half the number of horses as has Brown, checks in with $15,227,538 in purse earnings.
Brown could have locked this up at Breeders’ Cup, but after winning the Juvenile Fillies Turf (gr. IT) with New Money Honey, he came down with a severe case of seconditis as Lady Eli, Flintshire, and Wavell Avenue all checked in as runner-ups. Lady Eli (who did win the grade I Flower Bowl Stakes) alone would have provided the sentimental lift to elevate Brown, although his care in bringing her back to the top echelon after an amazing comeback from laminitis should not be overlooked.
In all, Brown has recorded 11 grade I victories on the year, 41 graded stakes wins, and 60 overall black-type victories. Baffert has marked up 10 grade I wins, 21 graded stakes victories, and 31 black-type victories. Amazingly, eight of Baffert’s grade I wins occurred since July 31. Hence, the frantic stretch drive.
Yet this has been an incredible season for Brown. Toppling Pletcher at Saratoga is no easy task, yet Brown asserted himself early and held on tenaciously. And while he still specializes in turf runners such as 2016 grade I victors Flintshire, Lady Eli, Dacita, Sea Calisi, Wake Forest, Beach Patrol, and New Money Honey, he is increasingly a force on the main track with grade I winners like Practical Joke (Champagne and Hopeful stakes) and Connect (Cigar Mile Handicap).
The smart money has the crewcut edging the white-haired wonder.