One major surprise in Eclipse Award balloting was the selection of Richard Englander as outstanding owner for the second consecutive year. It frankly was a puzzling decision by voters from two of the three groups that determine the annual awards.
Englander operates a large stable from coast to coast with mostly claimers, although he has begun to upgrade the quality. Witness his eight stakes winners in 2002, including Boston Common, winner of the grade II Jerome Handicap.
That was as close, though, as Englander came to a grade I victory in 2002, despite having 1,599 starts. He won a bundle of races--279--more than any other owner, and his earnings of $7.5 million put him third on the list of owners by money won.
But Eclipse Awards should reward outstanding performances. For the second consecutive year in the owner category, the winner represented quantity instead of quality. The other two finalists, The Thoroughbred Corp. and Juddmonte Farms, had outstanding years as measured by victories in graded stakes, with a fraction of the starts.
The voters with the National Thoroughbred Racing Association--racing secretaries and some employees of Equibase--didn't see it that way. Racing secretaries like people who fill races, and Englander ran his horses often, making life in the racing office easier. He deserves their thanks, but, in my opinion, not an Eclipse Award. He received 18 of the NTRA votes, twice as many as runner-up The Thoroughbred Corp., with the third finalist, Eclipse Award-winning breeder Juddmonte Farms, getting five.
Daily Racing Form staff equally backed Englander and Juddmonte Farms, with 10 votes each. Seven voted for The Thoroughbred Corp.
The third voting group, the National Turf Writers Association, leaned heavily in favor of The Thoroughbred Corp., with 50 votes to 15 for Juddmonte and 14 for Englander. Thus, the stable owned by the late Prince Ahmed Salman received 66 individual votes to 42 for Englander and 30 for Juddmonte. Because each of the three groups has equal say in the outcome--irrespective of the number of voters--Englander won by getting the nod from the NTRA and the split vote of Daily Racing Form.
(Full disclosure: In 2001, when he ranked first by earnings, Englander got my vote. In retrospect, I erred by not giving more weight to quality.)
The three voting organizations currently share responsibility for presenting the Eclipse Awards, although it should be the NTRA's show. But there are several things the NTRA must consider doing to improve the voting process.
First, the NTRA needs to clearly define for voters what the awards are supposed to recognize. It is difficult to imagine that outstanding performances, as determined by success at the highest level of the sport, would not be the most important consideration. Second, the NTRA should take control of who votes for the awards, inviting a panel of 50 to 100 of the most qualified and unbiased people in racing to participate. I see no compelling reason to perpetuate the three current voting organizations as separate groups. Third, simply make the winner the individual with the most first-place votes.
Speaking of quality not being recognized, how is it that someone who bred two Eclipse Award winners in 2002 was not even a finalist in the outstanding breeder category? Virginia Kraft Payson bred 2-year-old male champion Vindication and 3-year-old filly champion Farda Amiga from a comparatively small broodmare band. Unfortunately, because her operation does not produce large numbers of stakes winners or money won, she was not included in the any of the statistical data on breeders distributed to voters.
In part because of this shortcoming, she received only 21 of the 224 Eclipse Award votes as outstanding breeder.