What if they gave a dinner and nobody ate? That question came to mind several hours after arriving at the beautiful Saenger Theater in New Orleans for the 30th annual Eclipse Awards Dinner on the evening of Jan. 30. Thirty years, and they still haven't got it right -- though they are getting closer.
Since the National Thoroughbred Racing Association took over the event in 1999, it has gotten better. This year there was increased emphasis on fun and a little less on tradition; more drama and emotion. Audio and visual effects played a more important role, both in highlighting the accomplishments of the horses and people being honored and in making the awards program itself a night of entertainment. For the first time, roving cameras and a large-screen television gave all of the 500 people in attendance a chance to see the reactions of the winners, and some of the losers, as the Eclipse Award recipients were announced.
Now if they could just figure out how and when to serve dinner.
Kenny Mayne, the droll ESPN sportscaster and lover of horse racing, was terrific as the master of ceremonies, never allowing things to get too serious. When teenager Tyler Baze finished his tearful acceptance of an Eclipse Award as outstanding apprentice jockey, Mayne ad-libbed, "They're so cute at that age."
When a plethora of media-award acceptance speeches dragged on too long, Mayne gave a presenter $100 and told her to bring back some fried chicken from the Popeyes restaurant next door. When a young lady from Popeyes walked onstage carrying several boxes of food, Mayne commented how long it would be before dinner was served, and directed her to deliver some chicken to the table of Frank Stronach, the chairman of Magna and winner of four Eclipse Awards on the night. "We're trying to build bridges with Mr. Stronach," Mayne said in an obvious reference to the recent battles between Stronach and the NTRA.
Stronach didn't seem to mind the gesture. "I'd like to thank the NTRA for sending the chicken," Stronach said later, when accepting his award as outstanding owner. "Actually, I think it was dove, and the dove is a sign of peace."
Peace and love were in the air throughout this Eclipse Awards night. Churchill Downs president Tom Meeker and NTRA commissioner Tim Smith each publicly thanked Stronach for bringing his seven Magna Entertainment tracks back into the NTRA after extensive discussions. To clarify things, though, Smith said, "It was not part of the deal for him to win four Eclipse Awards."
For his part, Stronach was a mixture of grace and bravado. In accepting one award Stronach said he would "like to thank Lady Luck for being so kind to me." When he won as outstanding owner he said, "I put my money where my mouth is." No one disagreed.
Michael Cooper, co-owner of Horse of the Year Tiznow with the late Cecilia Straub-Rubens, was clearly humbled by the award, and his words served as a reminder that tradition does have a valued place in this game. "Just on the chance this might happen," Cooper said of Horse of the Year honors, "I tried to write a speech this afternoon, and in doing so I went through the history of this award and saw the names of Secretariat and Forego, Affirmed, Seattle Slew, John Henry, and I was too intimidated to write anymore."
With that, all the awards were given out, and there was little to do but eat. Yet, just as the Eclipse Awards dinner was being served, there was a stampede out of the Saenger Theater and onto the streets of the French Quarter.