Minutes after National Thoroughbred Racing Association commissioner Tim Smith announced Mineshaft as Horse of the Year at the dinner held at the Westin Diplomat in Hallandale, Fla., William S. Farish and Temple Webber--who bred and co-owned the son of A.P. Indy with James Elkins--were led into a special area where photographs of the winners were being taken. Members of Sackatoga Stable, which owned Funny Cide, were still having their pictures taken, passing the Eclipse statue from person to person. Several partners were posing with actor Joe Pesci, who presented the award to them.
"We'll be out of your way in a minute," J.P. Constance, one of the Sackatoga partners, called out to Farish and Webber. Farish flashed a smile and enjoyed the moment. "Take your time," Farish said.
It was a night when many of those being honored failed to honor the request of emcee Gary Stevens not to take their time in accepting awards. Stevens, the jockey and actor who served as a one-year replacement for ESPN personality Kenny Mayne, reminded the audience that the late William T. Young once made an 18-word commencement speech at Transylvania University.
Pesci, dressed in an open-collared black and white polka dot shirt for the black-tie dinner, was easily the hit of the night. "Hi, I'm your new neighbor," said Pesci, who recently joined the ranks of horse owner after carving out his acting career playing mostly gangster roles. "I'm sorry, but it looks like you're stuck with me to try and bring some attention to horse racing."
Pesci then told of being warned how tough the game is and how much he's got to learn. "All I know is my filly was in the stretch the other day and someone shot her in the (expletive deleted) eye. Now you're talking my game."
Actually, Pesci explained, his filly got hit in the eye with a pebble and should recover fully. "Not that you give a sh--" he told the audience.
Stevens wasn't the only change at this year's Eclipse Awards. Voting procedures were altered, going from what ESPN commentator Randy Moss called the "Soviet bloc system" to one person, one vote. Voters represented the National Turf Writers Association, Daily Racing Form
, and NTRA/Equibase. According to information provided by the NTRA, none of this year's winners would have been different under the former voting system.
Only one vote was extremely close, that being in the 3-year-old filly category, where Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) winner Bird Town edged NetJets Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT) winner Six Perfections by two votes. "This is the greatest day of my life," said Bird Town owner and breeder Marylou Whitney, who said she has dreamed of owning a champion since 1958, when she first became involved in racing. She credited her husband, John Hendrickson, for turning around her racing and breeding operation. "He put all of this together, studied it, and made my dreams come true," she said as tears streamed down her face.
There were no unanimous votes, though unbeaten 2-year-old filly winner Halfbridled got all but one of the 248 votes cast in her division. Ashado, who finished second to Halfbridled in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I), got a lone vote. It was the second year in a row the 2-year-old filly champion came within a vote of being unanimous.
Halfbridled was one of two 2003 champions trained by Richard Mandella, the other coming in the 2-year-old made division when Action This Day was voted the Eclipse Award. Owner B. Wayne Hughes commented on an article in the dinner program that said he spent a lot of money before getting his first champion. Hughes recalled a day of fishing when no fish were caught and the host apologized. "I said, 'We came here to fish, not catch fish,' " said Hughes, "and we came into racing to race, not to win races."
Farish, the United States Ambassador to England, spoke on behalf of his partners when Mineshaft won dual awards as champion older male and Horse of the Year. He thanked everyone associated with Mineshaft's success, then added a "special thanks to Tim Smith, who doesn't win any Eclipse Awards and takes all the heat. But he does a tremendous job for the industry."
The evening also included filmed tributes to the late Bill Shoemaker and to longtime Arlington Park chairman Richard Duchossois, winner of the Award of Merit. In accepting his award, Duchossois thanked his family for supporting him throughout the years. Jockey Stevens, who was injured in the 2003 Arlington Million (gr. IT) when Storming Home spooked and threw him to the turf near the finish, recalled Duchossois being the first person to visit him at the hospital. "When Mr. D. says 'family,' that means everyone who has ever walked through the front gates of Arlington Park."
Taped highlights of the Eclipse Awards will be shown on ESPN Feb. 8.