Below is how I am planning to fill out my official Eclipse Award ballot for 2018, with the caveat that my decisions will not become absolutely final until the entire year is over. That is why I will not be submitting my ballot until after racing this Monday (Dec. 31) is completed.
TWO-YEAR-OLD MALE: 1. Game Winner, 2. Improbable, 3. Maximus Mischief.
This was an easy vote for me. Game Winner did all that was asked of him during a campaign in which he won all four starts. After a 5 3/4-length maiden special weight victory at Del Mar on Aug. 18, he won the Grade I Del Mar Futurity by 1 1/2 lengths, Grade I American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita by 4 1/2 lengths and Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile by 2 1/4 lengths at Churchill Downs.
Improbable was three for three during the year. After a narrow maiden special weight win at Santa Anita on Sept. 29, he won the Street Sense Stakes by 7 1/4 lengths at Churchill on the Breeders’ Cup undercard and Grade I Los Alamitos CashCall Futurity by five lengths.
Maximus Mischief, like Improbable, was three for three during the year. After wins at Parx Racing by 8 3/4 and six lengths, he registered a 2 1/4-length triumph in the Grade II Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct.
TWO-YEAR-OLD FEMALE: 1. Jaywalk, 2. Newspaperofrecord, Chasing Yesterday.
It was a difficult decision to go with either Jaywalk or Newspaperofrecord.
Jaywalk finished second at first asking at Monmouth Park, then reeled off four consecutive victories. In her final two starts of the year, she won with authority at the Grade I level. She took the Grade I Frizette by 5 3/4 lengths at Belmont Park and Grade I BC Juvenile Fillies.
Newspaperofrecord actually impressed me more than Jaywalk. Newspaperofrecord was dazzling while winning each of her three 2018 starts, all on the grass. After a 6 3/4-length maiden special weight win at Saratoga on Aug. 19, she took the Grade II Miss Grillo by 6 1/2 lengths at Belmont and Grade I BC Juvenile Fillies Turf by 6 3/4 lengths. But what Jaywalk accomplished on the dirt trumped what Newspaperofrecord on the turf in terms of my vote in this category.
Except Chasing Yesterday’s hiccup when she finished seventh in the Grade I Spinaway Stakes at Saratoga, the daughter of Tapit was perfect in 2018. The half-sister to Triple Crown winner American Pharoah took the Anoakia Stakes at Santa Anita, Desi Arnaz Stakes at Del Mar and Grade I Starlet Stakes at Los Alamitos.
THREE-YEAR-OLD MALE: 1. Justify, 2. Catholic Boy, Good Magic.
Justify burst on the scene with a 9 1/2-length maiden special weight win when unveiled at Santa Anita on Feb. 18. He then won an allowance/optional claiming race by 6 1/2 lengths in the mud at Santa Anita on March 11. After that, he rattled off four straight Grade I victories. He won the Grade I Santa Anita Derby by three lengths, Grade I Kentucky Derby by 2 1/2 lengths on a sloppy track, Grade I Preakness Stakes by a half-length on another sloppy strip and Grade I Belmont Stakes by 1 3/4 lengths. He became America’s 13th Triple Crown winner.
Catholic Boy had the class and versatility to post Grade I victories on both turf and dirt in 2018. He won the Grade I Belmont Derby on the grass and Grade I Travers Stakes at Saratoga on the dirt.
Good Magic, who was voted a 2017 Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male, won a pair of graded stakes races during the year. He took the Grade II Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and Grade I Haskell Invitational at Monmouth. Good Magic also ran second in the Grade I Kentucky Derby.
THREE-YEAR-OLD FEMALE: 1. Monomoy Girl, 2. Midnight Bisou, 3. Rushing Fall.
This was an easy choice for me. Monomoy Girl had an outstanding 2018 campaign, winning six times and finishing second once in seven starts. She won the Grade II Rachel Alexandra Stakes at the Fair Grounds, Grade I Ashland Stakes at Keeneland, Grade I Kentucky Oaks at Churchill, Grade I Acorn Stakes at Belmont, Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga and Grade I BC Distaff. Monomoy Girl’s lone 2018 defeat came when, in a controversial decision by the Stewards, she finished first but was disqualified and placed second in the Grade I Cotillion at Parx.
Midnight Bisou was a dual Grade I winner in 2018. She was awarded the victory in the Grade I Cotillion via Monomoy Girl’s DQ. Midnight Bisou also won the Grade I Santa Anita Oaks. However, Monomoy Girl defeated Midnight Bisou in the Grade I Kentucky Oaks, Grade I CCA Oaks and Grade I BC Distaff.
I gave the nod to Rushing Fall over Shamrock Rose for third. They both won a Grade I race this year. Rushing Fall took the Grade I Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup on the turf at Keeneland. Shamrock Rose won the Grade I BC Filly & Mare Sprint.
OLDER DIRT MALE: 1. Accelerate, 2. City of Light, 3. Gun Runner.
Accelerate had a terrific 2018. He won the Grade II San Pasqual Stakes at Santa Anita in February, Grade I Santa Anita Handicap in March, Grade I Gold Cup at Santa Anita in May, Grade I Pacific Classic by a record 12 1/2 lengths at Del Mar in August and Grade I Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita in September. And then, for icing on the cake, he won the Grade I BC Classic in November.
City of Light handed Accelerate his lone 2018 defeat. That was when City of Light took the Grade II Oaklawn Handicap by a neck in April, with Accelerate having to settle for second.
This category is an example why, in voting for Eclipse Awards, I don’t always just go by what happened on the track. City of Light and Accelerate met once during the year. When they did, City of Light won and Accelerate lost. But there is more to it than just that one race. Accelerate won five Grade I races in 2018 compared to two Grade I victories for City of Light (Triple Bend Stakes at Santa Anita and BC Dirt Mile). At the Breeders’ Cup, Accelerate won the biggest race, the Classic, compared to City of Light’s triumph in the Dirt Mile.
As for third in this category, I opted for Gun Runner, who won the Grade I Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream in his lone 2018 start. I gave him the nod over Diversify, whose only Grade I win in 2018 came in the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga.
OLDER DIRT FEMALE: 1. Unique Bella, 2. Abel Tasman, 3. Wow Cat.
Not a strong year for this category.
Unique Bella ran only four times in 2018, but that still was once more than Forever Unbridled when she was voted the 2017 Eclipse Award as champion older dirt female. Unique Bella won the Grade II Santa Maria Stakes and Grade I Beholder Mile, both at Santa Anita, as well as the Grade I Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar. Her sole 2018 loss came when she finished second in the Grade I Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park.
After Abel Tasman won back-to-back Grade I races, the Ogden Phipps Stakes at Belmont and Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga, she became the favorite to get the 2019 Eclipse Award in this category. But then she went off form, losing the Grade I Zenyatta Stakes at Santa Anita by 10 1/2 lengths and Grade I BC Distaff by 22 lengths.
Wow Cat won the Grade I Beldame Stakes at Belmont by 3 1/2 lengths. She then proved that victory was not a fluke by finishing a respectable second in the BC Distaff.
MALE SPRINTER: 1. Roy H, 2. Imperial Hint, 3. Army Mule.
Roy H was an easy choice. He captured the Grade II Palos Verdes Stakes and Grade I Santa Anita Sprint Championship at the Great Race Place before becoming a repeat Breeders’ Cup winner in the Grade I Sprint.
Imperial Hint also was a double Grade I winner in 2018. He took the Alfred G. Vanderbilt Stakes at Saratoga and Vosburgh Stakes at Belmont before finishing third behind Roy H and Whitmore in the Grade I BC Sprint.
Army Mule only started twice in 2018, but he ran lights out both times. He won a six-furlong allowance/optional claiming race at Gulfstream by 7 1/2 lengths in 1:08.87 and the Grade I Carter Handicap at Aqueduct when he sped seven furlongs in 1:20.94.
FEMALE SPRINTER: 1. Shamrock Rose, 2. Marley’s Freedom, 3. Finley’sluckycharm.
Shamrock Rose lost her first three starts of 2018, then won four straight. In her final two outings of the year, she took the Grade II Raven Run Stakes at Keeneland and Grade I BC Filly & Mare Sprint in a 25-1 upset.
Marley’s Freedom was sent away as the 4-5 favorite in the BC Filly & Mare Sprint. She finished fourth, a half-length behind the victorious Shamrock Rose. Marley’s Freedom’s biggest 2018 win came in the Grade I Ballerina Stakes at Saratoga.
Finely’sluckycharm won a pair of graded stakes races during the year. She took the Grade I Madison at Keeneland and Grade II Honorable Miss Handicap at Saratoga.
MALE TURF: 1. Expert Eye, 2. Heart to Heart, 3. Stormy Liberal.
This category, for me, is a real head-scratcher this year. Inasmuch as no male grass performer in this country became a clear leader in the male turf division, I decided to go with Expert Eye, who shipped from Europe to win the Grade I BC Mile.
Heart to Heart did win two Grade I races during the year (Gulfstream Park Turf and Maker’s 46 Mile at Keeneland).
Yes, Stormy Liberal is a sprinter. But he did win four in a row. His most significant victories came in the Grade III Eddie D. Stakes at Santa Anita and Grade I BC Turf Sprint at Churchill.
FEMALE TURF: 1. Sistercharlie, 2. Enable, 3. Uni.
I voted for Expert Eye as champion male turf runner even though he ran only once in this country. While Enable was extremely impressive in winning the Grade I BC Turf in her only U.S. start, the big difference in the female turf division is Sistercharlie won four Grade I races in this country this year (Jenny Wiley at Keeneland, Diana at Saratoga, Beverly D. at Arlington Park and BC Filly & Mare Turf).
What Enable accomplished to win all three of her starts this year was nothing short of sensational. After winning a Group III race at 1 1/2 miles in England in a 2018 debut delayed by a knee injury, she became a rare two-time winner of the Group I Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in France. And then Enable became the first horse to win both the Arc and the BC Turf in the same year. Found won both races, but not in the same year. Found took the BC Turf in 2015 and the Arc in 2016.
Uni was four for four during the year. Her two graded stakes wins came in the Grade III Noble Damsel at Belmont and Grade I Matriarch at Del Mar.
STEEPLECHASE: 1. Zanjabeel, 2. Jury, 3. Optimus Prime.
TRAINER: 1. Bob Baffert, 2. Chad Brown, 3. Brad Cox.
JOCKEY: 1. Irad Ortiz Jr., 2. Jose Ortiz, 3. Mike Smith.
APPRENTICE JOCKEY: 1. Edgar Morales, 2. Weston Hamilton, 3. Asseal Espinoza.
OWNER: 1. Hronis Racing, 2. WinStar Farm & China Horse Club & Starlight Racing & Head of Plains Partners, 3. Peter Brant.
BREEDER: 1. WinStar Farm, 2. Besilu Stables, 3. Fred W. Hertrich III & John D. Fielding.
HORSE OF THE YEAR: 1. Justify, 2. Accelerate, 3. Monomoy Girl.
When people look back 10, 20, 50 or even 100 years from now, what will they remember most from what took place on the American racing stage in 2018? Will they remember 2018 for being the year that Accelerate won the Breeders’ Cup Classic? I believe there is a much better chance they will remember 2018 for being the year that Justify became the first Triple Crown winner in the history of the sport who did not race as a 2-year-old.
What one race does everyone in this country want to win the most? It’s the Kentucky Derby. And what does everyone in American racing want to accomplish even more than win the Kentucky Derby? It’s to win the Triple Crown, which is exactly what Justify did.
Sir Barton in 1919, Gallant Fox in 1930 and Omaha in 1935 won the Triple Crown prior to Granville becoming Daily Racing Form’s first Horse of the Year in 1937. Since Granville, all nine Triple Crown winners prior to this year have been voted that season’s Horse of the Year.
Has the Triple Crown lost stature since 1978? Would you not think that after the older Seattle Slew beat Affirmed both times they met in 1978, it was Seattle Slew who was voted Horse of the Year? Nope. Thanks mainly to the importance attached to a Triple Crown sweep, 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed was voted that season’s Horse of the Year despite twice finishing behind Seattle Slew that fall.
In terms of who should be the 2018 Horse of the Year, some feel it’s a big deal that Accelerate raced from Feb. 3 to Nov. 3. But how many races did Accelerate win this year? He won six, the same number as Justify, who crammed those victories into a time frame from Feb. 18 to June 9.
Accelerate did win five Grade I races, one more than Justify. Thus, the edge does go to Accelerate as far as that goes.
But Accelerate did not have an unblemished record. He did lose once, whereas nobody defeated Justify in 2018.
Some now knock Justify by saying he didn’t beat much. Granted, the leading 3-year-old males of 2018 did not cover themselves in glory during the second half of the season. But I would not say that Accelerate exactly beat a who’s who of racing in 2018, either.
Accelerate did win four times at what is often referred to as the classic American distance of 1 1/4 miles. That’s impressive. But I think it’s also impressive that Justify managed to win at distances ranging from seven furlongs to 1 1/2 miles.
Accelerate deserves credit for all his wins coming in races either for 3-year-olds and upward or 4-year-olds and upward, whereas all of Justify’s victory came in races restricted to 3-year-olds.
It certainly would strengthen Justify’s case to be voted Horse of the Year if he had won a race against his elders, a la fellow 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, who concluded his racing career with an emphatic 6 1/2-length triumph vs. older foes in the BC Classic.
But while Justify raced exclusively against 3-year-olds, he does deserve praise for becoming the first Kentucky Derby winner who did not race at 2 since Apollo in 1882. Not only that, Justify set a couple of Triple Crown records when he won the Belmont Stakes.
Justify now holds the record for defeating the most opponents in the Belmont Stakes of any Triple Crown winner.
This is how many opponents the 13 Triple Crown winners have defeated in the Belmont:
9 Justify (2018)
7 American Pharoah (2015)
7 Seattle Slew (1977)
7 Citation (1948)
6 Assault (1946)
6 War Admiral (1937)
4 Affirmed (1978)
4 Secretariat (1973)
4 Omaha (1935)
3 Whirlaway (1941)
3 Gallant Fox (1930)
2 Count Fleet (1943)
2 Sir Barton (1919)
Justify also now holds the record for defeating the most total starters in the three Triple Crown races. This is how many starters combined each Triple Crown defeated in the series:
35 Justify (2018)
32 War Admiral (1937)
31 American Pharoah (2015)
31 Assault (1946)
29 Seattle Slew (1977)
28 Omaha (1935)
27 Gallant Fox (1930)
24 Sir Barton (1919)
21 Secretariat (1973)
20 Affirmed (1978)
20 Whirlaway (1941)
15 Citation (1948)
14 Count Fleet (1943)
I don’t disagree that both Justify and Accelerate boast a Horse of the Year resume. But if there had been no American Pharoah and Justify had ended a 40-year Triple Crown drought, I think Justify would have been a slam-dunk to be voted Horse of the Year. In other words, Justify is paying something of a price for coming along so soon after American Pharoah swept the Triple Crown in 2015. Is this fair to Justify?
My 2018 Horse of the Year vote pretty much boils down to what Southern California handicapper Bob Ike said when discussing Accelerate vs. Justify a few weeks ago.
“Accelerate had a true Horse of the Year campaign,” Ike said. “But Justify had a historic campaign.