Commentary:Beyond Past Performances

Commentary:Beyond Past Performances
Photo: File Photo
Dan Liebman: Editor-in-Chief
There are no rules for Eclipse Awards voters, and maybe that is as it should be. There is no minimum starts requirement; you can vote for a 2-year-old for Horse of the Year; a turf runner can be chosen as overall champion for his or her age; and a sprint distance is not defined.

You also don’t have to vote strictly on the merits of the horses, though it certainly makes sense. Last year was a perfect example.
When the horses crossed the finish line in the Breeders’ Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I) in late October, it was obvious Curlin would be named Horse of the Year. That is, unless a voter looked not just at the past performances of the horse, but also at the owner and trainer.

Curlin is trained by Steve Asmussen, who began the year on the tail end of a lengthy suspension for a medication infraction. The suspension had nothing to do with Curlin, though there could be those who would refuse to vote for any horse in the trainer’s shedrow because of his suspension.

Curlin broke his maiden for the Midnight Cry Stable of William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham Jr., after which an 80% interest in the colt was purchased by Jess Jackson’s Stonestreet Stables, Satish Sanan’s Padua Stables, and George Bolton. During the year, while Curlin was winning over fans on the racetrack, the partners were winning over no one.

There was a rift between Jackson and Sanan, but that took a back seat to the fact attorneys Gallion and Cunningham have been in jail since August because of allegations they embezzled millions from plaintiffs in a fen-phen diet drug settlement.

At races in which Curlin ran, the colt delighted fans with his style, tenacity, and tremendous turn of foot, but it was not uncommon to hear those same fans say they were actually rooting against the horse because of his ownership group.

Despite his race record, if the voting for Horse of the Year was conducted by breeders, it is doubtful Curlin would have won. His majority owner, Jackson, has not endeared himself to members of that group by virtue of his claims that the Thoroughbred auction industry is corrupt.

If Jackson was the victim of unscrupulous acts involving the purchase of horses, that is unfortunate, but it does not mean an indictment of an entire industry is warranted.

Jackson has pushed hard for changes in the auction process, and many of the issues he raised, such as more transparency, are right on track. But his methods, termed bullying tactics by some breeders, leave something to be desired.

What did not leave anything to be desired was the racing year of Curlin, who while he may not be a great horse, certainly is a very, very good horse. He did not win the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), but did run third in just his fourth career start, and came back two weeks later to defeat the one-two Derby finishers in the Preakness (gr. I). After a head defeat to Rags to Riches in the Belmont (gr. I), he had two months off, ran third in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I), and closed out the year with wins in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) and Classic.

At year’s end, Curlin’s ownership had changed, with Jackson buying out the interests owned by Sanan and Bolton. The LLC controlled by the two partners unable to attend the Eclipse Awards because they are behind bars still owns 20%.

Many will not rejoice that Curlin has been named Horse of the Year. But do not hold it against the son of Smart Strike. A horse cannot determine its owner and trainer. Let’s face it: if they could, many horses would walk out of their stalls and enter another barn.

Look at it this way—it appears Curlin is remaining in training as a 4-year-old. For that, we can all be thankful.

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