Eclipse Award attendees and the TVG viewers tuned in on the night of Jan. 26 were anticipating, and many were hoping, that Curlin would repeat as Horse of the Year.
They also were waiting for an acceptance speech from Curlin’s owner Jess Jackson, possibly with heartfelt eloquence approaching last year’s event in Beverly Hills, Calif., when he announced that Curlin would race as a 4-year-old in 2008.
The closing moments of the 38th annual Eclipse Awards, at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach Hotel, lived up to those expectations when National Thoroughbred Racing Association President Alex Waldrop announced that Curlin was again Horse of the Year.
Curlin received 153 of the 240 first place votes cast by members of the NTRA, Daily Racing Form and the National Turf Writers Association. Ann and Jerry Moss’s Zenyatta was second with 69, followed by IEAH Stables’ Big Brown with 13.
Jackson told the audience that his Stonestreet Stables continued to race Curlin in 2008 “to pursue a dream” of him proving to be a great champion in the ranks of horses he has admired such as Secretariat, Affirmed and Forego.
“We have achieved that dream,” Jackson said. “I think he proved he deserves the honor. I’ve always believed he’s a true champion. He’s now one of the greats of the industry.”
Curlin is now preparing for stud duties at Lane’s End Farm.
Jackson said Curlin’s 2008 achievements should be a reminder to owners that great horses can run at age 4 and still embellish their records and not decrease any breeding value.
Curlin, who was also voted champion older male, is the first repeat Horse of the Year winner since Cigar in 1995 and 1996. He won five of seven races in 2008. Jackson emphasized that the highlight was the $6 million Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) on March 29.
In the United States, Curlin had grade I wins in the Stephen Foster, Woodward and Jockey Gold Cup and retired with a record of 11 wins in 16 career starts, including the Preakness (gr. 1) and Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. 1) in 2007. His career earnings of $10.5 million are a North American record.
Two of the evening’s other highlights were provided by the owners of Eclipse winners who announced, similar to Jackson at the 2008 awards, that their champions would return to racing in 2009.
Those champions are IEAH’s Benny the Bull, winner of the Eclipse as male sprinter, and Zenyatta, the Eclipse winner as older female.
Michael Iavarone, co-president and co-CEO of IEAH, broke that news about Benny the Bull when he accepted his now 6-year old sprinter’s Eclipse. Benny the Bull received 107 votes for male sprinter, followed by Watson and Weitman Performances LLC’s Midnight Lute with 86.
“I am happy to tell you that Benny the Bull is coming out of retirement,” and will not be sent to breeding this year as previously planned, Iavarone said, adding that IEAH feels that the sport benefits from having Eclipse winners remain in training.
Last August, IEAH retired Benny the Bull after he suffered a chip in an ankle. Iavarone told the audience that the chip has healed. Iavarone later told members of the media that IEAH had decided that it would announce the return of Benny the Bull only if he won the Eclipse. Benny the Bull won all four of his 2008 races, including the Dubai Golden Shaheen (gr. 1).
“We all (IEAH partners in the horse) decided to bring him back if he won,” Iavarone said. “We turned down some (breeding) money. There is no indication that he won’t be like he was before.”
Midnight Lute’s lone 2008 win from two starts was the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita on Oct. 26. He also won that race in 2007, when he was voted the Eclipse as male sprinter.
IEAH also received the champion 3-year-old male Eclipse for Big Brown, winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and Preakness Stakes (gr. I).
“I wish that everyone could have had our chance to see Big Brown in his stall and around the track, as well as in his races,” Iavarone said. “We saw him as a champion, and his legacy will be as a champion.”
Prior to the awards segment of the program, the Mosses told TVG that Zenyatta would run in 2008 as a 5-year-old.
That decision had been expected for Zenyatta, the winner of the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic. But it was not as definite as the evening’s anticipated “lock” that Zenyatta would win the older female Eclipse.
Unbeaten in seven 2008 starts, Zenyatta won the Eclipse with 240 first-place votes, while Stronach Stables’ Ginger Punch received the other two.
The awards segment began with the announcement that Zenyatta’s dramatic come-from-behind Breeders’ Cup win was the NTRA “Moment of the Year.” That announcement was made by NBC Sports’ Kenny Rice, who again was master of ceremonies.
The program followed with the Eclipse Award of Merit to Alice Headley Chandler, whose family was the founder of Mill Ridge Farm. Chandler was recognized for her career as a breeder, owner and trainer. One notable achievement was the 1964 breeding of Mill Ridge’s mare Attica to Sir Gaylord which produced 1968 Epsom Derby winner Sir Ivor.
In the evening’s closet vote Stronach Stables defeated IEAH, 47-46, for outstanding owner. Adena Springs, also owned by Magna Entertainment Chairman Frank Stronach, won its fifth straight outstanding breeder Eclipse.
Adena Springs had nine homebred stakes winners in 2008, including graded winners Ginger Punch, Giant Gizmo , Harlem Rocker, Spring Waltz, and Sugar Swirl.
As the owner Eclipse announcement was being made, cameras showed stunned looks on faces of several members of the IEAH party, which captured some of the year’s biggest headlines with Big Brown.
“I asked for a steward’s inquiry,” Iavarone later joked with the media. He then complimented Frank Stronach on his achievements.
Stronach was not in attendance. His wife Frieda and son Andy accepted the Adena Springs and Stronach Stables awards.
The evening had a very prominent first-time winner in Steve Asmussen as outstanding trainer.
Asmussen set a single-season record for victories with 623 and his horses had earnings of $27,835,247 last year. Curlin was his most notable trainee.
In accepting the award, Asmussen noted that his brother Cash Asmussen had prviously won an Eclipse as apprentice jockey.
“I am especially proud for my parents,” Asmussen said. “They had two kids and both had the great fortune to win an Eclipse Award. That is a tremendous feat.”
Garrett Gomez won his second consecutive Eclipse as outstanding jockey. Gomez rode a record four winners during the two-day Breeders’ Cup World Championships. He had 214 victories in 2008, with his mounts earning $23,344,351.