As image after image flashed upon the screen in three separate montages throughout the evening Jan. 16 at the 45th annual Eclipse Awards, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's #APAndMe social media campaign perfectly illustrated the heartwarming impact of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah through his remarkable 2015 campaign.
In photos submitted from people across the country via Twitter, Zayat Stable's newly crowned Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male could be seen again and again posing with fans young and old—prior to his Triple Crown victories, during his lead-up to a Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) score, and even now at Ashford Stud in retirement—his gentle nature on display thanks to the remarkable level of access his connections have granted the public.
"This horse has given us all a tremendous amount of love... I look at American Pharoah as America's horse; he's really the people's horse and he was the horse of hope for the Triple Crown," said Joanne Zayat, wife of owner Ahmed Zayat, as the family accepted the golden Horse of the Year trophy at the end of the ceremonies.
The Zayats, who previously had only won a single Eclipse—champion 2-year-old male of 2014, also courtesy of American Pharoah—were the center of attention as they took home four Eclipse Awards; the unanimous Horse of the Year and sophomore male titles, outstanding breeder, and outstanding owner.
Hall of Fame horseman Bob Baffert also collected an Eclipse for outstanding trainer, his fourth overall, beating out top-level competiton in Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown. After fumbling to accept the trophy in a bungled handoff with sports reporter Randy Moss, the white-haired conditioner threw a few of his signature one-liners to the crowd.
"I am so excited to win this award, really," he said. "I never thought I'd get up here again, because the competition has been fierce. I want to thank everybody who voted for me and congratulate Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown. You guys were looking really strong, had a great year, until June 6.
"We had a phenomenal year... every trainer in this room, we dream of a horse like American Pharoah. He was a gift from God."
Only jockey Victor Espinoza was left out of what was otherwise a sweep for the connections of American Pharoah, who became just the second unanimous Horse of the Year in modern Eclipse history, joining 1981 selection John Henry. Although Espinoza rode the Triple Crown winner, it was national leader Javier Castellano who brought home his third consecutive Eclipse for outstanding rider.
"First of all, I would like to say thanks God for this award—such a great honor," Castellano said with candor. "I really appreciate this award. I was thinking about it and kind of made me a little nervous... to be honest with you, I'd rather ride a horse in the Breeders' Cup at (odds of) 4-5, in a million-dollar race, than to sit here and wait for the result."
Although this year's Eclipse Awards were predictable in many categories, one surprise came in the champion female sprinter category, as hard-knocking La Verdad beat out TwinSpires Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (gr. I) winner Wavell Avenue. Owner Sheila Rosenblum took to the stage along with trainer Linda Rice to express her heartfelt appreciation.
"One of the greatest sprinters, my La Verdad, has made a dream come true," she said. "I love this mare. She's a love story. She's one of a kind. She's just very miraculous."
The connections of Beholder offered similar sentiments, as the Richard Mandella-trained runner took home honors as champion older dirt female, her third Eclipse overall for B. Wayne Hughes' Spendthrift Farm.
"We couldn't be more proud of what Beholder's accomplished this year...," said Spendthrift general manager Ned Toffey. "I'd like to recognize Wayne's leadership, his patience, and his faith in Richard's craftsmanship... (and) Richard's skill, class, and commitment to doing the right thing for the horse at all times. It's a collaboration that has resulted in not one Eclipse, but three, and just a great career for Beholder."
"Bob (Baffert) mentioned what a great feeling it is to train a horse like he had, and I have the same feeling with Beholder," Mandella said. "They're two horses that it would take crops to replace them. You can't just take a number of horses, it would be how many crops it would take to find another one. And just being a trainer who gets to wake up every day and think about that, is quite an honor."
Craig Bernick of Glen Hill Farm also offered a touching tribute to his grandfather, Leonard Lavin, who was unable to attend to accept his Eclipse Award of merit.
"It's been wonderful working with my grandfather since I took over Glen Hill Farm in 2008," Bernick said. "It's very unique for a founder to turn over control of his business, but my grandfather felt I would benefit from his guidance, which has proven true... He's been a hard but fair boss. Our disagreements have been about horses, never business principals.
"Those have been consistent and straightforward: be a man of your word, pay your bills on time, be patient with horses, stand up for what you believe whether it's popular or not, never suggest an idea to someone that you wouldn't do yourself, and most of all he's stressed that Glen Hill Farm is an extension of the Lavin and Bernick families, so make sure everything associated with it is done properly and with class. My goal is to teach these principals to my family and have Glen Hill Farm endure another 50 years."