Surrounded by more fanfare than the Eclipse Awards have ever seen owner/breeder Morton Fink celebrated in awe his biggest night in racing.
The native of Northbrook, Ill., walked onto the stage in Gulfstream Park's Sport of Kings theater three times the evening of Jan. 19 to collect trophies for champion turf male, older male, and most remarkably Horse of the Year for his outstanding runner Wise Dan.
A horse has not grabbed these three championship titles in one year since 1981 when they were awarded to John Henry.
"For me after all these years...you get to my age, you need something that makes you get up in the morning and have something to look forward to," said the 83-year-old Fink. "This horse has made me so happy, I can’t even express it in words."
Wise Dan was a runaway winner in the Eclipse voting with 194 first-place votes. Coming in a distant second was two-time classic winner and 3-year-old male champion I'll Have Another who garnered 30 votes. Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) winner Fort Larned got 12 votes.
The newly-crowned Horse of the Year, a now 6-year-old gelding by Wiseman's Ferry, just missed a perfect 5-year-old season in 2012 by a head in the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) to Ron the Greek, who won the Florida Sunshine Millions Classic in a 11 1/4-length romp earlier in the day.
"There were a lot of good older horses (last year)," said trainer Charlie Lopresti. "I was surprised he won the older horse. I could see us getting turf horse because of what he did but I felt he could get Horse of the Year, breaking two different track records."
Doug O’Neill, who trained I’ll Have Another for owner J. Paul Reddam, said he could never be disappointed about getting passed for Horse of the Year. I'll Have Another won the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and took the Preakness (gr. I) before being withdrawn from the Belmont (g. I) with a tendon injury. He was subsequently sold for stud duty in Japan.
"We got the 3-year-old championship, and we are just really proud of this colt and really miss him," O’Neill said. "The relationship that he and Lava Man had throughout the year was a great thing, to watch how they flourished. Lava Man has mellowed out a lot (since I’ll Have Another was shipped to Japan). He was a horse that hated traveling but he has gone on a few more trips and may be on the traveling team this year if we’re lucky enough to get another one."
Fortunately for racing fans, Wise Dan will be back this year. His reward for winning the Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT) at Santa Anita Park, where he set a track record of 1:31.78, was a 60-day break at the farm near Lexington.
"His hair is long and he’s muddy, but he had fun," Lopresti said. "He got to racing up and down the fence and I thought we’ve got to get this horse out of here and back to the track."
Now Wise Dan is back in the stable and every indication, the trainer said, is that he’s same horse he was following the Mile. His training regimen will get more serious in February with the aim of having him start in April in the Maker’s 46 Mile (gr. IT) at Keeneland.
Other key awards for the year went to "the crowd favorite" Dale Romans, who picked up his first title as leading trainer to thunderous applause. The other finalists were Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher.
Romans had 125 winners from 763 starters in 2012 and earnings of more than $11.8 million. The stars in his barn included grade I winners Little Mike (Breeders’ Cup Turf and Arlington Million), Dullahan (Toyota Blue Grass Stakes and Pacific Classic), Shackleford (Clark Handicap), and Tapitsfly (Just a Game Stakes and First Lady Stakes).
"This morning at the rail I was talking to my good friend Allen Jerkens," Romans said. "He told me in 1973 in his acceptance speech he said, ‘It’s simple, it takes good horses and good owners to make a good horse trainer.’ Forty years later that still holds true. I’m fortunate at this point in my career to have good horses and even greater owners to work for."
Another emotional moment came when Ramon Dominguez, who is in the hospital with a fractured skull following a spill Jan. 18 at Aqueduct Racetrack, was honored as the year's top jockey. The award was accepted in his honor by John Velazquez and Javier Castellano, who were also finalists in the category.
The closest title race of the night was for 3-year-old female champion, which went to Darley homebred Questing, who won the Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. I) and Alabama Stakes (gr. I), then finished second by a head to My Miss Aurelia in a thrilling Cotillion Stakes (gr. I). Questing beat out My Miss Aurelia with 106 first place votes to her opponent's 102.
It was also a big night for Darley and its Godolphin Racing, which picked up honors as the leading breeder and owner of the year. Jimmy Bell, head of Darley’s American operation, said five of Godolphin’s grade I winners of 2012 will be racing again this year.
This year’s Eclipse Awards was the first ever held at a racetrack and the executives of Gulfstream Park promised to bring new life into the otherwise staid event. They kept their promise.
Leading up to the main event, Gulfstream Park and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association hosted several charity events—a golf tournament, slot tournament, poker tournament, and an auction and cocktail reception. In all, these events raised $120,000 for the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, The Race for Education, the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, and the Gulfstream Park Thoroughbred Aftercare program.
Then came the pizzazz. Following the Horse of the Year announcement, the stage of the Sport of King’s theater was soon occupied by jugglers twirling flaming sticks (think Hawaiian luau) and female dancers on elevated stages within the seating area adorned in outfits that would rival any Las Vegas show.
Outside in the walking ring, the center fountain gushed rainbow water and overhead laser lights shot pulsing patterns through a mist of clouds generated by smoke machines.
Inside the theater, the Black Eyed Peas’ "Tonight’s Gonna Be a Good Night" throbbed. It was a fitting anthem for the Finks and Loprestis, who enjoyed a night like no other.