Navigating Eclipse Awards’ gray waters

Horse Racing


In order to be eligible for an Academy Award, a movie must comply with a long list of requirements laid out by the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. A feature film must be at least 40 minutes in length.

At the very least, it must be shown in a theater in Los Angeles County between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 for no fewer than seven consecutive days, three times a day, for a paid admission.

The good news is that “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” the best movie of 2017, is eligible to sweep every possible honor it fully deserves come Oscar night. But that is beside the point.

In contrast, to be eligible for one of the 12 categories of the Eclipse Awards, including Horse of the Year, a horse must have started at least once in North America. That’s it. To be eligible for one of the five Eclipse Awards reserved for the human components of the sport, a person must simply have done their job. It is assumed that most of it took place in North America.

The rest is left up to the imagination of the 269 eligible voters from the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, and Daily Racing Form.

A total of 250 ballots were submitted, and on Friday the finalists were announced. If there was a surprise among the names, it was well hidden. Even though the trend is leaning toward fewer starts for the best horses, there is at least enough revealed during the course of a long season to mix and match records worthy of Eclipse consideration.

Except for the female sprint division. Let’s face it, the female sprint division is a mess. At best, it is a gaudy example of reverse engineering, based on the fragile assumption that if there is a Breeders’ Cup race for a particular division, then there must be a champion as well.

In 2017, there were 11 Grade 1 opportunities for fillies and mares at a mile or more, providing plenty of grist for voters. There were only four such events in the female sprint division, each at seven furlongs. The Madison at Keeneland and the Humana Distaff at Churchill Downs were restricted to 4-year-olds and up, while the Ballerina at Saratoga and the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, last year at Del Mar, were open to 3-year-olds as well.

Faced with such a lack of data, Eclipse voters are routinely baffled. Last year was further complicated by the fact that the four races were decided by two necks, a head, and a nose. Paulassilverlining won the Madison and the Humana, By the Moon won the Ballerina, and Bar of Gold, at 66-1, won the BCFMS.

Had the names been stripped away from the four races, and only the Grade 1 label attached, I’m betting Bar of Gold, 2 for 9 on the year, would not have been among the three finalists. But she was, along with Paulassilverlining and 3-year-old Unique Bella, the beaten favorite in the Breeders’ Cup but a winner over elders in a Grade 3 event.

What is given is rarely taken back, so it is useless to rail against the existence of such a flimsy category. But something must be done to provide voters more to go on when female sprinters are judged. Yes, they could run against males, although why should they when they have a division championship of their own? The disconnect between the Graded Race System and the clout of the Breeders’ Cup is frustrating.

The Eclipse Awards are not immune to change. Both the female turf and female sprint categories were later added to the original roster of awards. The awards for steeplechase horse and breeder transitioned from committee selection to the broader voting group. And the groups themselves, once counted as disproportionate but equally powerful blocs, are now commingled in the vote tally, in a nod to the democratic process.

Winning an Eclipse Award is a big deal. Just ask anyone who has or hasn’t won one. It is certainly a big deal to the successful owner Sol Kumin, whose various partnerships were represented in 2017 by such major stakes winners as Lady Eli and Beach Patrol, both Eclipse finalists in the turf categories.

Kumin and his representatives launched a effort to recalibrate the traditional tabulation of ownership accomplishment, as it pertained to Eclipse Award voter information, in hopes that the common thread of his partial ownership of an impressive roster of stakes winners would be held in the same regard as the more familiar, monolithic stables that have dominated the awards.

Kumin may have a good point, and the Eclipse Award steering committee considered the case without making any changes, for now. A more aggressive campaign on Kumin’s behalf was facilitated by the leadership of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, which was an unfortunate lapse in judgment.

In the end, the three Eclipse finalists for owner are Juddmonte Farms, Godolphin, and the partnership of Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys, easily identified as Khalid Abdullah, Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, and Ron Winchell and Goncalo Torrealba. Perhaps, at this point, Kumin’s best chance for recognition is to carve out a group of good horses and race them in the stable name “Sol Kumin.”



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