The selection process for the Eclipse Awards has remained relatively unchanged since 1971, when the awards program and annual dinner were inaugurated by the Thoroughbred Racing Associations to singularly honor horse racing's champions. Prior to that, as senior correspondent Steve Haskin details in a story on page 388, championships were determined by two groups, each of which announced their voting results with little fanfare. The two publications didn't always agree, either, so there were years when more than one horse was listed as a champion in a single division.
One recent change for the better in the voting process was the decision to name a champion by popular vote of the three participating organizations: racing secretaries at National Thoroughbred Racing Association member tracks and Equibase chartcallers; selected Daily Racing Form
staff; and members of the National Turf Writers Association. Before that, winners were determined by bloc voting, which led to a few champions getting the nod from two of the three organizations but not having the most votes overall.
One change that hasn't worked was an earlier decision to eliminate a committee of six individuals to choose outstanding breeder, and have the winner determined by popular vote. (Full disclosure: as editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse
, I was invited to participate on that committee.)
Why hasn't it worked? Because, since the change from committee, the larger pool of voters simply has chosen whichever breeder has earned the most money. As a result, it now appears only a handful of people will have a chance to win an Eclipse Award as outstanding breeder, because most breeders don't have the number of broodmares required to produce the racetrack progeny earnings voters have focused on in the selection process.
Virginia Kraft Payson didn't have the numbers, but she managed to breed two of the 10 divisional Eclipse Award champions--Farda Amiga and Vindication--in 2002. Voters didn't even put her in the top three finalists despite the accomplishment. Neither were Aaron and Marie Jones in the top 10 leading breeders in 2004, when they produced champions Speightstown and Ashado. They weren't finalists for an Eclipse Award, either.
Nothing against the people who are eligible to vote for Eclipse Awards, but those two oversights were egregious and suggest voters either don't care or don't understand what represents outstanding achievement in Thoroughbred breeding. With 32,000 North American foals born each year, there is less than a 1-in-3,000 chance that a newborn colt or filly will become a champion.
To produce two champions in the same year would be commendable for a breeding operation like Frank Stronach's Adena Springs, which has hundreds of mares and is the likely candidate to win the Eclipse Award in 2005, based on the North American-leading earnings of the runners it bred. But for smaller operations like Payson's or the Joneses', it is nothing short of remarkable.
A similar oversight occurred in the outstanding owner category in 1998 when Mike Pegram failed to win an Eclipse Award despite campaigning two champions, Silverbulletday and Real Quiet.
If the Eclipse electorate is unable to interpret the data presented them in the information accompanying their ballots and merely goes with the leading earner in human categories, what is the purpose of voting? As an alternative, in both human and equine divisions, championships could be determined either based on money earned or by a formula that would award points for performances in graded stakes.
That type of system also might increase awareness and interest in the Eclipse Awards among fans. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.