Making Claims: Nevills Defends His Eclipse Awards Ballot

In “Making Claims,” Paulick Report bloodstock editor Joe Nevills shares his opinions on the Thoroughbred industry from the breeding and sales arenas to the racing world and beyond.

It’s early January, and you know what that means: Eclipse Award voters have begun sharing their ballots on social media, and no matter who they picked, outrage ensues from the folks who disagree.

I’ve got an Eclipse vote, and it’s made public as a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters bloc of voters, so in the interest of transparency, I’ll share here how I filled out my ballot, along with my reasoning for each category.

If you think I’m off-base with any of my votes, just remember these two things: First, the voting is closed, so nothing I say here can swing any undecided voters. Second, back in 2011, one intrepid voter chose Drosselmeyer as champion turf male in a campaign where his lone start on grass was a seventh-place effort. No matter how much we might disagree on who should be placed where, please understand that someone out there will go further off the deep end than any of us could imagine and cancel me out. Eclipse Award voters are an eclectic bunch.

With that out of the way, let’s get down to business.

2-Year-Old Male
1. Essential Quality
2. Jackie’s Warrior
3. Fire At Will

While I certainly can’t fault anyone for giving Jackie’s Warrior a mulligan for his fourth-place effort in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and instead focusing on his brilliant campaign up to that point, two things swung it toward Essential Quality for me.

First, when they faced off head-to-head on the biggest stage of their lives in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Essential Quality got there first. The juvenile dirt races hold a lot of weight for me, especially in a deep field like we had this year. Second, Essential Quality had a bit more depth to his game. Where Jackie’s Warrior got to the front early to do his damage, Essential Quality showed he could be a Grade 1 horse battling for the lead or coming from behind, and he did it twice beyond a mile. That professionalism gave him the edge.

2-Year-Old Female
1. Vequist
2. Dayoutoftheoffice
3. Aunt Pearl

Vequist was the only horse in the division with two Grade 1 wins, and if she was going to split the series with Dayoutoftheoffice, I’d rather have the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies in my win column than the Frizette. All due respect to Juvenile Fillies Turf winner Aunt Pearl, but the lack of depth in North America’s juvenile turf platoon and its schedule compared to their dirt contemporaries makes it hard to put a turf horse on top on either of the baby divisions.

3-Year-Old Male
1. Authentic
2. Tiz the Law
3. Happy Saver

The first two were slam dunks. Authentic won the Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic, both over Tiz the Law, who would have gotten the nod if he’d have won either one of those races. There is such a wide gap to the third spot that it allowed for some creativity. Happy Saver got the call by virtue of beating older competition in the G1 Jockey Club Gold Cup.

For the record, I need you all to appreciate the level of restraint it took for me to keep my real champion 3-year-old of 2020 off the ticket: a gelding named Underscore who ran fourth in his only career start back in March, who is now working toward his second career when he’s not busy receiving hugs and mints.

3-Year-Old Female
1. Swiss Skydiver
2. Shedaresthedevil
3. Harvey’s Lil Goil

Pretty simple here. If a filly wins a Triple Crown race, it’s going to take a mountain of evidence against her to knock her off the perch. Fortunately, Swiss Skydiver had a deep resume to justify the spot beyond her centerpiece victory, with four other graded stakes triumphs, including the G1 Alabama Stakes. Shedaresthedevil, who bested Swiss Skydiver in the Kentucky Oaks and never ran a bad one in 2020, was a clear second, completing an outstanding exacta for new Lane’s End resident Daredevil.

Older Dirt Male
1. Improbable
2. Vekoma
3. Global Campaign

I’ll be the first to admit that after watching Improbable lose as the favorite again and again as a 3-year-old, I never thought he’d get it together enough to become more than the occasional fluke Grade 1 winner. A year later, here I am eating my words after he became one of the few consistent pillars of an older male division that saw a lot of its potential stars struggle with injury and consistency. Improbable crisscrossed the map and beat everyone else in the division he needed to beat.

I could have shaken the bottle, pulled out a lot of other names to fill out the bottom of the ticket and felt the same about it, but consistent, strong efforts at the highest levels got Vekoma and Global Campaign there for me. In a year where practically every serious contender either got hurt or got exposed when the chips were really down, showing up to work with your lunchpail was enough.

Older Dirt Female
1. Monomoy Girl
2. Serengeti Empress
3. Valiance

In terms of margin of victory, Monomoy Girl might be the biggest runaway winner of this year’s divisions. She went unbeaten in four starts this year, including her pièce de résistance in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

Serengeti Empress was probably the best horse with the worst luck this year, just missing a couple of graded stakes wins after running with a ton of heart. Even with the near-misses, she was incredibly versatile, winning graded stakes at both the sprint and route distances. Valiance got good at the right time, and proved she belonged with a win in the G1 Spinster Stakes and a second to Monomoy Girl in the Distaff.

I struggled with what to do with Midnight Bisou. She ran huge in the Saudi Cup (and she might end up being named the winner someday if the right people decide there’s enough evidence to take Maximum Security down), she looked like the Midnight Bisou we all know and love in her G2 Fleur de Lis romp, and she was unlucky to get nipped in the G1 Personal Ensign. What kept her off the ticket for me was the incomplete feeling I had when I looked at her record. She only raced three times – twice on U.S. soil – she only won once (as of the time this was published), and she didn’t win a North American Grade 1. When I crossed out her name from the running lines and separated the campaign from the brand recognition behind the horse that ran it, the bid lost a lot of its luster.

Male Sprinter
1. Whitmore
2. Vekoma
3. Volatile

Not a great year for this division in terms of true standouts. Like the Older Dirt Male division, there were a lot of struggles here with form and health that made this division tough to sort out. When that happens, the Breeders’ Cup gains a lot more weight, almost by default. Whitmore ran the race of his life to win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, and while his campaign had its fair share of misfires, he did enough with his supporting efforts to put him on top.

Vekoma and Volatile were both lightly raced in 2020, and I don’t love that, but they both went undefeated and won their Grade 1 races with gusto. No one else, save for maybe C Z Rocket, had a case that could stack up to that.

Female Sprinter
1. Serengeti Empress
2. Bell’s the One
3. Glass Slippers

First, let’s address the elephant in the room: Where’s Gamine?

My policy for Eclipse voting is if the glacially-paced gears of horse racing’s justice system are fast enough to pop a horse for a positive drug test and disqualify them from a race, they’re off my ticket regardless of what they do for the rest of their campaign. When Gamine was taken down from her Oaklawn Park optional claimer earlier this year due to a lidocaine positive, she ceased being eligible for year-end honors in my eyes.

I didn’t vote for La Verdad in 2015 when she was a contender in this division after she got taken down from the G2 Honorable Miss Stakes for a clenbuterol positive. She ended up winning the Eclipse anyway by eight votes over Wavell Avenue. If I were to venture a guess, Gamine will take this trophy home by a much wider margin, regardless of what I think, but I won’t be part of it.

So, that leaves us with a closely matched race between Serengeti Empress and Bell’s the One. Bell’s the One bested Serengeti Empress by a nose in the G1 Derby City Distaff, while Serengeti Empress nosed out her foe for second in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. If we’re pretending Gamine doesn’t exist, that’s a draw in my eyes. Serengeti Empress had an additional Grade 1 sprint win in the Ballerina, while Bell’s the One only had a Grade 3 win to counter, putting the decision to rest.

Male Turf Horse
1. Channel Maker
2. Zulu Alpha
3. Instilled Regard

Filling out the award winners in this division is often a bleak affair, given how much time North America’s turf males spend beating each other up, then losing to fillies and Europeans when the lights are the brightest, but this might be the least convincing group of contenders I’ve seen in any division since I’ve had a vote.

Let’s get this over with. I don’t tend to put European-based horses on top unless their case is so convincing that I have no other choice, and that didn’t happen this year. Channel Maker was the only horse in the division with two Grade 1 wins, Zulu Alpha won a good Grade 1 in the Pegasus World Cup Turf and never threw a clunker, and Instilled Regard’s spot could have gone to a lot of different horses, but I liked his big wins more than the other contenders. Next.

Female Turf Horse
1. Rushing Fall
2. Tarnawa
3. Starship Jubilee

I’ve seen a lot of votes go for Tarnawa, and I wouldn’t be mad if she won it, given the strength of her globetrotting campaign and her impressive win against males in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. However, as I laid out, I prefer to give it to a domestic horse if at all possible, and Rushing Fall came a hard-trying neck in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf away from a perfect campaign. The only thing missing from Rushing Fall’s resume is an Eclipse Award, and I think she gets it here.

Steeplechase Horse
1. Abstain
2. Abstain
3. Abstain

I’ve had people say I should have my Eclipse vote taken away for abstaining from the steeplechase category every year. They don’t seem to realize I abstain out of respect. Nothing in my job requires me to take even a passive interest in the steeplechase races. I know none of the players, the races are often held at venues I’m not familiar with in terms of geography or esteem, and I’m not aware of the unwritten class system that can separate one Grade 1 race from another (like how winning the Kentucky Derby means more than winning the Malibu Stakes). It’s an entirely different culture.

If a group of basketball writers were brought in to decide the Eclipse Awards, people would erupt, and rightfully so. It would be disrespectful to the hard work done by an entire industry to have someone outside the circle decide who among them was the best. That’s why I leave the steeplechase division to the people who know what they’re doing, and don’t let my uninformed vote interfere with that. Someone will get a trophy whether I vote or not.

Owner
1. Godolphin
2. Klaravich Stables
3. Gary Barber

Unless a partnership is practically synonymous with each other (like Klaravich Stables and William Lawrence were for a long time), I tend to see this award as one for individuals over groups. Barring outstanding circumstances like a Triple Crown winner, I look for solid high-level success in an Outstanding Owner candidate, with enough depth to fill out the ranks. Godolphin got its Grade 1 bona fides with probable champion Essential Quality and Fair Maiden, while finishing among the nation’s leaders by wins, graded wins, and earnings. I could have put Klaravich Stables or Gary Barber in the top spot and slept just as well at night, but the blue team just stood out a little more for me this year.

Breeder
1. WinStar Farm
2. Godolphin
3. Peter E. Blum Thoroughbreds

My criteria is a little more fluid in this category than others. I like to reward a small breeder if they can pull multiple major stars out of a small broodmare band, but short of that, I’ve got to lean on the numbers and the big wins. WinStar Farm was responsible for the top two in my champion 3-year-old female voting – Swiss Skydiver and Shedaresthedevil – who accounted for the Preakness Stakes and Kentucky Oaks respectively. None of the other major players could match that duo, and that’s before we add Grade 1 winners Global Campaign and Paris Lights to the fold.

Jockey
1. Irad Ortiz Jr.
2. Joel Rosario
3. John Velazquez

Irad Ortiz hit the big double of winning some of the sport’s biggest races in 2020 while also showing up to work every day to compile impressive numbers. He netted two Breeders’ Cup races and the Pegasus World Cup, while also comfortably leading the nation by both wins and earnings while racing on North America’s top circuits. This decision was tougher than it sounds, but if the object of the game is to win races and make money, Irad did it the best.

Apprentice Jockey
1. Alexander Crispin
2. Yarmarie Correa
3. Santos Rivera

It was a tight race between the top two. Crispin finished second in the jockey standings at the long Delaware Park meet, and third during one of Laurel Park’s meets, while also picking up a win in the First State Dash Stakes at Delaware Park. Correa won the riding title at Thistledown’s long meet and is currently holding strong in the standings at Mahoning Valley Race Course. As much as I love the Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic circuit is deeper water, and the stakes win helped put Crispin on top.

Unrelated, since it was in an Arabian race and doesn’t count in the Eclipse voting, but Crispin was also responsible for one of the best rides I’ve seen all year, both in the skill of the thing and the caliber of the horses he beat to do it. Remember what I said about different cultures in horse racing? Trust me when I tell you how big of an effort this was in the scope of Arabian racing.

Trainer
1. Brad Cox
2. Chad Brown
3. Steve Asmussen

Brad Cox won four Breeders’ Cup races, including two of the biggest prizes: the Distaff and the Juvenile. He also took home the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, La Troienne, and Breeders’ Futurity, and he was near the top of the list in just about any meaningful category out there. Chad Brown had a ton of Grade 1 success, but a general lack of variety beyond turf races in those wins and a quiet Breeders’ Cup put him in the place position. Steve Asmussen’s giant barn put up its usual bulk numbers, and he had several Grade 1 trophies to fill it out at the top.

Horse of the Year
1. Authentic
2. Improbable
3. Monomoy Girl

If Authentic won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he was going to be Horse of the Year. If Improbable had won the Classic instead of running second to Authentic, he would have been Horse of the Year. If they both flopped and an upset winner took it, it would be hard to put a horse with just four starts on top, but Monomoy Girl would have certainly been a big one in that discussion.

As it stands, Authentic got hot at the right time when the Kentucky Derby was still going to be in May, he stayed hot over the summer when the Derby moved to September, and he blossomed into a star when it mattered most late in his campaign. Looking at the whole of the season for anyone with a serious bid at the title, nobody else made sense in the top spot.

The post Making Claims: Nevills Defends His Eclipse Awards Ballot appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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