On a night of comedic one-liners, most of them from the hilarious emcee, Kenny Mayne, National Thoroughbred Racing Association commissioner Tim Smith said the single phrase most of the 500 people attending Tuesday's 30th annual Eclipse Awards dinner at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans, La., were waiting to hear. When he opened the envelope containing the name of the Horse of the Year for 2000, Smith said simply: "Congratulations California, it's Tiznow."
Michael Cooper, who co-owned the California-bred Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) winner with the late Cecilia Straub-Rubens, was clearly humbled by the award. "Just on the chance this might happen," Cooper said, "I tried to write a speech this afternoon, and in doing so I went through the history of this award and saw the names of Secretariat and Forego, Affirmed, Seattle Slew, John Henry, and I was too intimidated to write anymore. So I would just say thank you very much for honoring Tiznow that he can be considered in their company. And I want to thank the fans of this great sport who have given their hearts, their cards, and their best wishes to Tiznow and his connections. We're so happy to bring this horse back for another year of racing and hope all of you get a chance to see him and enjoy the pleasure that we know, and share with us the excitement of this wonderful animal and all that he's been able to do and hope will continue to do."
Tiznow, who also won the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male, may have been the star of the 2000 racing season, but Frank Stronach and his Adena Springs operation was the big winner on Eclipse night. Stronach won four Eclipses: for 2-year-old male champion Macho Uno, turf female Perfect String, and individual awards as outstanding owner and breeder. "I'd like to thank Lady Luck for being so kind to me," Stronach said after accepting Macho Uno's award.
Stronach, whose battles with the NTRA have been well publicized in recent months, also was the subject for a few barbs from the dry-witted Mayne, the ESPN announcer and Sports Center host whose interest in racing led to his being asked to emcee the last two Eclipse Awards programs. After Stronach got his second Eclipse, Mayne asked the audience, "Is there betting on this?" Some time later, during a seemingly endless series of speeches from media winners of Eclipse Awards, Mayne sent a messenger with $100 to the Popeye's chicken restaurant next door to the theater. When the media winners were finished with their speeches, Mayne warned the audience how long it would be until the night's dinner would be served, and had a Popeye's employee deliver boxes of chicken to several tables. He pointed out Stronach's table to the woman carrying the chicken and asked her to be sure to deliver him some of the food: "We're trying to build bridges with Mr. Stronach," Mayne said, in reference to his stormy relationship with the NTRA.
Stronach didn't miss on the opportunity to respond. When he later accepted his award as outstanding owner, Stronach said, "I'd like to thank the NTRA for sending the chicken. Actually, I think it was a dove, and the dove is a sign of peace."
Even the NTRA's Smith got into the act. Before announcing Tiznow as Horse of the Year, he publicly thanked Stronach for agreeing to bring his racetracks back into the NTRA. "Just to clarify things," Smith said, "it was not part of the deal for him to win four Eclipse Awards."
The embattled NTRA commissioner was also one of Mayne's targets. In introducing Smith, Mayne said tongue in cheek, "What a smooth ride for him."
Mayne set the tone for the evening with his opening remarks. "Who says the NTRA is frivolous?" he said, after commenting on the Mardi Gras beads with flashing lights that were distributed to all those on hand. "These are actually powered by batteries confiscated from jockeys." Later, after former Houston Oilers football coach Bum Phillips gave the award for outstanding male turf runner won by Kalanisi to the Aga Khan's daughter, a princess, he said: "Princess and Bum together -- what a beautiful thing."
But the night was not all light-hearted. When Tiznow's Eclipse as 3-year-old champion was presented, Cooper fought back tears when he spoke of Straub-Rubens, who died just days after Tiznow's Breeders' Cup triumph. After thanking the colt's trainer, Jay Robbins, and jockey, Chris McCarron, he spoke of Tiznow's breeder and co-owner. "Thank you, Cee, and we miss you dearly."
Another emotional moment came when young Tyler Baze won the Eclipse Award as leading apprentice jockey. "I don't know what to say," Baze said, the tears flowing freely down his cheeks. "I just want to thank the horses."
Jerry Bailey, who won the Eclipse Award as outstanding jockey, was a no-show at the event. His agent, Ron Anderson, accepted on his behalf.
Aaron Jones, owner of older female champion Riboletta, also was overcome with emotion when he thanked his trainer, Eduardo Inda, comparing the longtime Ron McAnally assistant with two late Hall of Famers, Charlie Whittingham and Lazaro Barrera, the latter of whom trained former Jones champions Tiffany Lass and Lemhi Gold. "We've been blessed again by having a trainer that is equal to the other two," he said.
The biggest ovation of the night went to Eclipse Award of Merit recipient Jim McKay, the longtime ABC commentator who was introduced by his friend, Churchill Downs president Thomas Meeker. "All of us here tonight should stop and thank Jim McKay for being part of our sport," Meeker said. A video presentation of McKay's career was one of the evening's highlights.
If there was a surprise, it might have been trainer Robert Frankel's decision over Joe Orseno, who trained Stronach's two champions. "I feel bad for Joe Orseno," said Frankel, a Hall of Fame trainer with one previous Eclipse Award. "He had a wonderful year." To which presenter Bum Phillips said, "It takes class, in both horses and people."
The evening began with New Orleans legend Pete Fountain playing "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans" on his clarinet, and helping present the first few Eclipse Awards. The evening was enlivened with strategically placed cameras for the first time showing reaction shots of the finalists on the large video screen behind the stage. With the exception of media awards, the Award of Merit, and a Special Eclipse Award that went to John Hettinger, the names of all the award winners were kept secret until the envelopes were opened on-stage.