DECEMBER 1, 2012

Yes We Can

by Vance Hanson

In a recent column, contributing editor Dick Powell lamented how some of us with Eclipse Award ballots hastily rush to judgment about our divisional choices without taking into account the results of major races traditionally run in December, in particular those at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita.

While the principle behind this observation is sound, the reality is the landscape in virtually all divisions is rarely so ambiguous this time of year that additional information is required to make sensible or logical choices.

In the rare instances where we've needed more evidence (for example, in the 2004 and 2009 juvenile male races), we dutifully waited an additional few weeks into December before coming to a decision. However, when nearly all of the leading contenders for divisional titles are either heading into retirement or on vacation, the championship implications of most events held during the twelfth month is debatable.

The relative importance of certain races, generally ascertained by the composition of the field, is in the eye of the beholder and should not necessarily be synonymous with the labeling bestowed upon it by the American Graded Stakes Committee. Besides doubting the top-level worthiness of races like the Malibu and La Brea, which were initially created and historically used as stepping stones for longer, more lucrative races during the Santa Anita winter meet, we question how much weight a pair of seven-furlong races restricted to three-year-olds in the waning days of December should have in determining any divisional championship.

As in years past, we'll begin with divisional choices where there should be little need for explanation, then work our way through those where more than a stray comment or two are necessary.

Champion two-year-old male: SHANGHAI BOBBY

Champion older female: ROYAL DELTA

Champion female sprinter: GROUPIE DOLL

Champion three-year-old male: I'LL HAVE ANOTHER

Champion turf female: ZAGORA

Champion older male: FORT LARNED, with his victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic, did enough throughout the year to dissuade even the most iconoclastic Eclipse voter from supporting yet another candidate whose primary successes occurred on turf and/or synthetic, as was the case with Gio Ponti in 2009 and Acclamation in 2011.

Champion male sprinter: TRINNIBERG is not an entirely satisfactory choice given a couple missteps during the year in stakes restricted to three-year-olds, but in the definitive divisional race of the season he pulled it out against a quality group representing all regions. While his success was arguably aided to some extent by a track bias, how much he was helped and how much others were hurt by it can't really be measured.

Champion steeplechaser: PIERROT LUNAIRE ended his campaign with back-to-back wins in the Lonesome Glory and Grand National, but DEMONSTRATIVE registered big wins, too, in the New York Turf Writers Cup and Colonial Cup. The fact Pierrot Lunaire finished ahead of Demonstrative in both of their meetings gives him the edge.

Champion three-year-old filly: QUESTING was arguably the most impressive multiple winner of the Saratoga meet, trouncing her Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama rivals by a combined margin of 13 1/4 lengths. Her subsequent attempt to win the Cotillion by lulling her rivals to sleep backfired on the free-running filly, who was nipped at the wire by My Miss Aurelia. Dramatically pulled up early in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic, she was later found to have suffered an eye injury and a chipped ankle.

MY MISS AURELIA, the 2011 juvenile filly champion, was restricted to just three starts this year due to early-season shin issues. A three-length winner of a restricted overnight stakes at Saratoga going 6 1/2 furlongs, she came back to beat Questing in the Cotillion by a head while in receipt of seven pounds. With such a thin resume heading into the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic, it was our view that she needed to win the race to take championship honors. Her second-place finish to Royal Delta, while admirable, was not sufficient.

Champion two-year-old filly: This race is admittedly a great example in favor of accepting the "Powell Doctrine" of waiting until all results are in.

The Bob Baffert-trained EXECUTIVEPRIVILEGE has won the Chandelier, Del Mar Debutante, Sorrento and Landaluce already this term, and will be favored to add a fifth stakes win in the December 8 Hollywood Starlet. If victorious, it would be an impressive feat in an era when juvenile fillies often don't make five starts, much less win five stakes, in their first season of competition.

In her lone defeat thus far, Executiveprivilege finished second by a length in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies to BEHOLDER, a rival she had previously beaten by a nose in the Del Mar Debutante and by more than eight lengths in their maiden debut at Hollywood Park.

Historically, voters have found it hard to deny the winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies the divisional championship. It's only happened twice since 1984, and the candidacies of Twilight Ridge (1985) and Cash Run (1999) took a hit when they subsequently lost following their Breeders' Cup wins. Beholder, in contrast, is done racing for the year.

If Executiveprivilege wins the Starlet, this race tightens and perhaps becomes, in political parlance, a toss-up. That view reflects our own thinking, but won't necessarily be shared by the wider electorate, many of whom reflexively back the Breeders' Cup winner.

Our custom is to not consider maidens, allowances and other non-stakes when evaluating the candidacies of horses for divisional honors, so we view this rivalry between Executiveprivilege and Beholder all-square at one win apiece. It will stay that way through the end of the year, but Executiveprivilege has certainly accomplished more and can pad her record with a victory next week. Beholder was more impressive beating Executiveprivilege than vice versa, but certainly might have been aided to some extent by the speed-friendly nature of Santa Anita's main track on Breeders' Cup weekend.

This is going to be a difficult choice either way, and this might be a rare instance where neither would be a "wrong" choice. For now, we're holding our fire.

Champion turf male: The two leading contenders for this honor heading into the Breeders' Cup were Mile participant WISE DAN and Turf candidate POINT OF ENTRY. It was almost universally accepted that a victory for one, combined with a loss by the other, would give the successful horse the upper hand in championship consideration. Victories by both would present voters with a dilemma of choosing between two distinguished and worthy candidates. Nary a peep was heard about the possibility of another horse entering the championship equation.

When Wise Dan won the Mile and Point of Entry finished second in the Turf, the debate appeared to have been settled. However, out of left field, came a rising chorus of support for the upset winner of the Turf LITTLE MIKE. We have to admit we're still scratching our head over this.

What we seem to gather from the public pronouncements of some Little Mike backers is that he enjoyed an equal amount of success as Wise Dan because, you know, only the number of Grade 1 wins count toward these things.

Yet another feather in Little Mike's cap was that he showed more versatility, registering his signature wins at distances from nine furlongs to 1 1/2 miles, whereas Wise Dan did not win on turf beyond a mile.

Last but not least, the Breeders' Cup Turf/Arlington Million/Woodford Reserve Turf Classic troika unquestionably trumps the piddling Breeders' Cup Mile/Shadwell Turf Mile/Woodbine Mile achievements of Wise Dan any old day.

All of which begs these questions:

  • If the quantity of Grade 1 wins is an important criteria, why has Point of Entry's candidacy taken a hit? He has three of them, too.
  • Should non-specialist Wise Dan's specialist-like turf campaign be downgraded for an award whose past winners include the likes of Cozzene, Leroidesanimaux and Miesque's Approval?
  • If the decrees handed down by the American Graded Stakes Committee and its foreign equivalents are indeed gospel, so much so that it's become the industry norm to judge the relative merits of horses based on their performance in races these organizations determine as the best of the best, is it not then contradictory to invoke Orwell and deem certain Grade 1 races more equal in stature than others?
  • The bottom line, in our view, is that if Point of Entry lost his claim to championship honors on Breeders' Cup Day, then Little Mike's candidacy is also hindered. A closer scrutiny of their respective records in stakes company, in fact, shows that Point of Entry's campaign contained fewer flaws.

    Little Mike handed Point of Entry his lone stakes defeat of the season on the square in the Breeders' Cup Turf over Santa Anita's putting green, but Point of Entry beat Little Mike on a softened Belmont Park course in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic and with many more lengths to spare. Also, can Little Mike's losses in the Shoemaker Mile and Canadian Turf, races he was favored to win, be completely disregarded?

    Over the course of four grass tests, WISE DAN essentially proved himself the leading turf miler in the world, bar Frankel. That, combined with the relative uncertainty at the other end of a traditionally diverse division, gets him our vote.

    Horse of the Year: The fringe candidacies of ROYAL DELTA, I'LL HAVE ANOTHER and GROUPIE DOLL have different disqualifying factors based on our long-standing criteria.

    Royal Delta, who might already be worthy of Hall of Fame induction, did not face males after her flop in the Dubai World Cup. However, the Breeders' Cup Classic is expected to be a long-term goal for the mare in 2013 and we hope her path to that race is unobstructed.

    I'll Have Another, who by virtue of winning the two most watched and wagered-on races in the U.S. is the most well-known Thoroughbred in American sporting culture, saw his career come to a premature end in June. Although a perfect four-for-four against his peers, he was unable to prove himself against his elders.

    The connections of Groupie Doll were certainly hoping to sway the sympathies of voters when she took to the track in last week's Cigar Mile against the boys, and the filly nearly pulled off the win. Even if she had, though, there was never enough inscrutability in the sport's premier divisions to give the edge to a horse whose primary accomplishments occurred in restricted company under a mile.

    The top two candidates, based on our divisional choices (and how can you logically be named Horse of the Year without being a divisional champion?), are FORT LARNED and WISE DAN, and the latter gets the nod based in part on their respective performances in the Stephen Foster Handicap.

    Fort Larned's last-place effort at Churchill Downs was hardly indicative of his true talents, and he ultimately avenged that defeat against several Foster rivals, with interest, later in the season. However, Wise Dan's narrow loss in that nine-furlong dirt event (his only loss of the season), as well as his thrashing of overmatched rivals in the Ben Ali at Keeneland, shows he was the better all-around horse of the two. The belief here is that he could just as easily been a contender for a championship even if kept to a campaign consisting primarily of dirt races.

    In a near flawless campaign, Wise Dan was among the best on any surface.