Tim Smith, commissioner of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, recently lamented how the organization he heads is not able to function as a league office in the same manner as the NBA, NFL, or PGA, to mention a few other sports. There is more bark than bite to the NTRA, whether it involves a schedule of televised races or the cooperation of member racetracks and horsemen.
Here's one way the NTRA might grow some teeth: create a points system to decide Eclipse Award championships to replace a year-end voting process that can be a potpourri of conflict of interest, regional bias, retribution, and incompetence.
Properly designed, the framework for a divisional championship or Horse of the Year title based on points earned in specific races could function as a strong incentive for owners and trainers to run their horses in events deemed most important by the NTRA. Admittedly, this would not be a popular move among most of the people who now determine the Eclipse Awards: members of the National Turf Writers Association, certain employees at Daily Racing Form
, and a combination of racing secretaries at NTRA member tracks along with employees of the data collection company, Equibase.
Obviously, the system would rely to some extent on the existing structure, graded stakes, that has been in place for 30 years. Grade I events would be worth more points than grade II, which would be worth more points than a grade III. Races in the Visa Triple Crown Challenge or the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships--all of them grade I--obviously would carry more points than a regular grade I event.
But the NTRA also could put additional emphasis on other races, whether it is the Thoroughbred Championship Tour series proposed by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association or some reasonable facsimile. The NTRA could free up money from the Breeders' Cup stakes funds to make specific races more valuable, and then give them even more importance by awarding additional Eclipse Awards points. Those factors might make a possible television deal even more attractive, especially if they work as an incentive to get the best horses in training to compete against one another.
The current voting system is flawed. A number of voters do not cover racing extensively enough to vote intelligently. Too many voters cast ballots with prejudice, some with a bias toward their home track or region. Some use their ballots to express displeasure: For example, if voters were not convinced an injury to Mineshaft was the reason he passed the Breeders' Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I), the big race "dodge" would have created a backlash among some voters.
The creation of an Eclipse Awards points system gives fans and the industry something to follow on a year-round basis, and owners and trainers will know exactly what they will have to do to win a championship. It rewards excellence and participation, especially in the game's most important races. The system also gives the NTRA a stronger product to take to television networks to help give the sport more exposure. MERIT FOR SEABISCUIT
One Eclipse Award that cannot be decided by points is the prestigious Award of Merit. There will be a movement in some circles to give this award to Gary Ross, producer of Seabiscuit
, the critically acclaimed movie seen by more than 10 million people. But without Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend
, there would be no film.
Hillenbrand has won two previous Eclipse Awards for writing, with Seabiscuit the subject for both. Her contributions to the sport have earned her a third statuette, the Award of Merit.