There were no standing ovations and only a handful of laughs at the 32nd annual Eclipse Awards Dinner held at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Monday night. But emotions ran high during many of the presentations, not the least of which during Michael Paulson's tearful acceptance of the Horse of the Year trophy for Azeri, the brilliant mare bred by his father and trained by Laura de Seroux, the first woman conditioner of a North American Horse of the Year.
Paulson struggled to get the words out to thank those currently involved with Azeri, who was the unanimous choice to win the older female Eclipse and a Horse of the Year finalist with champion older male Left Bank, European champion Rock of Gibraltar, and 3-year-old champion War Emblem.
Paulson said Azeri was "truly deserving of this honor." The Kentucky-bred daughter of Jade Hunter is scheduled to be sold at the March Barretts sale in Pomona, Calif., as a result of dispute within the Allen Paulson Living Trust.
"She will return, and when she does I'm sure she'll be at championship form."
Later, Paulson said he and his two brothers, Richard and Jim, will buy her back. "We control 75% of the trust," Paulson said, "we have a lot of buying power, so we hope to buy her back." Paulson said recent estimates pegged Azeri's value at $3.6 million. He called the award "bittersweet" in light of his father's death and the acrimony within the trust.
De Seroux said Azeri possessed the three attributes of a champion--class, brilliance, and consistency--during a 2002 campaign that saw her win eight of nine starts. "You certainly did not elect a Horse of the Year by default," she said.
The Horse of the Year presentation, usually made by NTRA commissioner Tim Smith, was handed over to actor Tobey Maguire, who is starring in the film adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book on Seabiscuit. Two other actors in the movie, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper, also presented awards.
Smith asked Maguire about his impressions of the racing industry after working on the film and Maguire said he "had a whole different respect for what you guys do" after being exposed to what goes on "behind the curtain" at a racetrack.
At one point during the awards program, ESPN personality Kenny Mayne, handling the emcee duties for a fourth consecutive year, asked if there was anyone in the audience who wasn't connected with Seabiscuit.
As usual, Mayne got the most laughs with his droll humor. He mentioned his new role as host of the "Citgo Racing to the Kentucky Derby" series on ESPN, and, when the audience failed to respond in any way, said, "That's quite an endorsement."
Earlier, Mayne was pushed offstage by jockey Gary Stevens while going on and on with "Jerry wanted me to say" comments when he accepted the outstanding jockey Eclipse Award for Jerry Bailey, who was a no show at the dinner.
The two presentations for Eclipse Awards of Merit to longtime breeder and former Jockey Club chairman Ogden Phipps and veteran racing official Howard Battle were given by D.G. Van Clief Jr. and extremely well-received by those in attendance. Both men died last year. A touching video on Phipps featured extensive comments from him about the horse he considered his all-time favorite, the unbeaten champion Personal Ensign. "He knew a great horse when he saw one," Van Clief said.
"He loved his horses. He loved them with a passion," said Phipps' son, Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps. "He enjoyed every day at the races, whether it was in the morning or the afternoon." Phipps said his father's legacy was to "give four generations the same love that he has."
Glenn and Daisy Battle accepted the Award of Merit for Howard Battle, who carved out a distinguished career at Keeneland and other tracks while serving on numerous industry committees.
Robert Frankel, winner of the outstanding trainer award for the third consecutive year, brought three key members of his staff onstage. Assistant trainer Humberto Ascanio has worked for Frankel since 1973 and another assistant, Ruben Luza, has been with him since 1977. The third team member was exercise rider Jose Cuervo. "They make my life a lot easier and I can go to sleep at night knowing everything is taken care of," Frankel said.
The most explosive moment came with the announcement of Farda Amiga as champion 3-year-old filly. The winning connections tossed confetti into the air as part of raucous celebration on their way to the stage. It was similar to the joyful winner's circle ceremonies in 2002 when the filly won the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) and Alabama Stakes (gr. I).
The tone turned somber immediately thereafter when War Emblem was named 3-year-old male champion, and Richard Mulhall accepted on behalf of his friend and employer, Prince Ahmed Salman, who died suddenly last July.
Several acceptance speeches went over the two-minute limit the NTRA hoped to impose on award winners. The first was Satish Sanan, who accepted the award for Vindication's 2-year-old male championship on behalf of his family's Padua Stables. "Bob said I could go over," Sanan said, referring to the unbeaten colt's trainer, Bob Baffert.
When Dinny Phipps came up next to accept the Eclipse Award for 2-year-old filly, won by his family's Storm Flag Flying, he said, "I can get you back on schedule. I can assure you of that."
The next acceptor was Coolmore's Dermot Ryan, for older male champion Left Bank. "I sold my minutes to Satish," he joked before making a few brief comments about the late champion.