Talk about a wide-open category: the Steeplechase division of the 2013 Eclipse Awards appears to be anybody's ballgame as no single jumper landed more than one grade I event during the season. Selecting a winner among the three finalists is an exercise in determining who had the best overall campaign.
Winners in the 17 horse and human categories will be announced at the 43rd annual Eclipse Awards dinner and ceremony Jan. 18 at Gulfstream Park Racing and Casino in Hallandale Beach, Fla. The ceremony will air live on HRTV.
Keeping the best company all year long was Italian Wedding. Bred, owned, and trained by Hall of Fame conditioner Jonathan Sheppard, Italian Wedding made five starts—all in NSA-I company, the upper echelon of American steeplechasing.
A popular winner of the New York Turf Writers Handicap (NSA-I) in late August at Saratoga Race Course, Italian Wedding had finished mid-pack to finish second to Mr. Hot Stuff in his 2013 debut, the A.P. Smithwick Memorial Stakes (NSA-I) Aug. 1 at the Spa. Italian Wedding then was a good third to Gustavian, beaten just 1 3/4 lengths, in the 2 1/2-mile Lonesome Glory Handicap (NSA-I) at Belmont Park. Unfortunately Italian Wedding's worst performance of the year came in the most lucrative race—the Grand National (NSA-I) at Far Hills, N.J., where he was a non-threatening eighth behind Divine Fortune. He rallied in late November at Camden in South Carolina with a third-place effort in the Colonial Cup (NSA-I).
Since the inception of the Eclipse Awards in 1971, Sheppard has trained six champion steeplechasers that have amassed 10 statues including William L. Pape's four-time winner Flatterer. His last winner came in 2009 with Pape's Mixed Up.
Pape and Sheppard combined forces in 2013 with Eclipse finalist Divine Fortune, a Royal Anthem gelding bred and raced by the pair. Divine Fortune was the sport's leading earner for 2013, bringing home $207,000 in purses. Second in the early-season Iroquois Steeplechase (NSA-I) at Percy Warner Park outside of Nashville, he, too, competed in the same five grade I races as Italian Wedding with moderate success including a third-place finish in the Smithwick. However, he stepped up big time in the Grand National, taking the field wire-to-wire to register a 5 1/2-length score over Gustavian.
Magalen Bryant's Gustavian is also a finalist for the Eclipse. Trained by Leslie Young, the Giant's Causeway gelding placed in a pair of graded stakes in the spring before reaching the winner's circle at Belmont in the Lonesome Glory. His runner-up effort in the Grand National gave him a 1-2-1 slate from five starts on the year, which ended with rider Paddy Young falling after Gustavian stumbled in the Colonial Cup.