On Track with Johnny D: One Man, One Vote

I just voted for the second time in 2016.

Once in November—for the office of President of the United States and for assorted governmental positions and referendums. This time, I helped to determine winners of Eclipse Awards, to be presented Jan. 21 at Gulfstream Park.

In November I considered myself reasonably informed about candidates, platforms and issues. This time, however, I’m more confident of my prowess to suitably designate connections deserving Eclipse statuettes.

I’ve spent close to 40 years working (I use the term loosely) in some aspect of Thoroughbred racing–including, the last 20 years, as a weekly blogger, initially for Youbet and now Xpressbet.

One would assume that such extensive experience would render identifying the top three horses and humans of the year in each category a snap.

It doesn’t. I struggled with compiling an accurate 1-2-3 ranking in some categories and, in hindsight, may have gotten one or two slots ‘wrong.’

Perhaps that’s because I permitted long-standing personal relationships with candidates and connections to cloud my thinking? That wouldn’t be right, so I diligently guard against it and vote only for the most deserving candidates.

Not! If you’re naïve enough to think that I’d vote against someone I’ve been friendly with for decades, you’re probably still waiting for Santa Claus. I’m loyal and we’re taking Eclipse Awards here—the Oscars of the racing industry. If I can help a friend fondle hardware, count me in.

Guess it’s a good thing that my vote isn’t the only one that counts. Members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Daily Racing Form and National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association are eligible to vote—around 281 strong. And they don’t have many rules or restrictions either: Eligible equines must have raced at least once in 2016 in the United States or Canada. The same goes for humans or their horses. That’s it!

Some divisions are ‘no-brainers.’ For example, it’s easy to get behind Arrogate as top 3-Year-Old Male and Songbird as outstanding sophomore filly. Older Dirt Male? That wager, too, is off the board. California Chrome’s a cinch.

Not as cut and dried, I found Tepin a logical choice for Female Turf queen. Even though she failed in her last two outings her overall 2016 body of work is outstanding. Found, third in the BC Turf, spent the season mostly chasing males over European courses. She gets an A for effort, as does Miss Temple City.

Based on early domination of Big Apple-based foes, I entered Flintshire’s name as the top male on the weeds. It should be noted, however, that Highland Reel defeated Flintshire in the BC Turf and faced much better competition in Europe. Anyone voting for that iron horse can’t be discouraged. Yours truly may have gotten this one wrong.

Classic Empire’s neck decision over Not This Time in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile punctuated a nearly perfect season and is enough of an accomplishment to earn him outstanding 2-Year-Old Male nod. Only blemish on his resume is a sharp right turn out of the gate at Saratoga and I can’t hold that against him. Who among us hasn’t veered off track at Saratoga?

In a close call, my vote for outstanding 2-Year-Old Filly goes to Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Champagne Room. Heading into that November test, no filly was dominant in the division–American Gal was the race’s starting favorite at 9-2–so Champagne Room’s 33-1 upset was ‘right place, right time.’

Beholder’s fine-as-frog’s-hair tally over Songbird in the BC Distaff was enough for her to garner my vote as top Older Dirt Female. In 2016, she finished second as many times as she won (3), but her races, except for a Grade 3 tune up victory in May, all came against Grade 1 foes, including California Chrome.

That she was still competing at such a high level on a regular basis at age six motivated yours truly to consider voting for Spendthrift Farm (B. Wayne Hughes) as the season’s outstanding owner. Ultimately, my support went in another direction (more on that later), but Spendthrift got a ‘thank you’ and my place vote in the category.

Either 3-year-old Drefong or 4-year-old Lord Nelson, both trained by Bob Baffert and unbeaten in 2016–including two Grade 1 wins by the former and three by the latter–are worthy of seasonal honors. Drefong’s BC Sprint triumph, a race ‘Nelson was forced to skip, tipped the scale in the former’s direction.

Unraveling the Female Sprint category was a real challenge. Finest City was best in this division on BC day, and that counts for a lot, but this voter considered Haveyougoneaway’s overall season as better. They both had Grade 1 and Grade 2 scores, but the former was just 2 for 8, while the latter was an admirable 5 for 8. Carina Mia also won a Grade 1 and Grade 2, but was just 2 for 7 overall. Tough call in a wide-open category.

In the saddle, the Ortiz brothers, Jose and Irad, Jr., continued to gain popularity on the NYRA circuit and Mike Smith again defied age in winning Grade 1 races in bunches. 30-year-old Frenchman Florent Geroux tied Smith atop the list of jockeys with 10 Grade 1 wins each. However, perennial riding champ Javier Castellano once more topped the list of highest earning jocks at over $26 million and, according to this scribe, ably defended his 2015 Eclipse title.

Luis Ocasio and Lane Luzzi topped all apprentice riders with over $2 million in earnings each. The former gets the nod in a close finish.

Rawnaq got this vote as the top Steeplechase runner with two Grade 1 wins and a second in as many attempts. He also romped in a Grade 3 to start the season.

Trainer Chad Brown deserves to win his first Eclipse Award. He topped all trainers with over $23 million in earnings, roughly $2.5 million more than runner-up and multiple Eclipse recipient Todd Pletcher. Bob Baffert, who won 11 Grade 1 races to Brown’s 12, deserves honorable mention, especially for his work with Arrogate and unbeaten sprinters Drefong and Lord Nelson, among others.

Based on the salvage of 2014 Horse of the Year, the aptly named California Chrome, LLC, gets my vote as the sport’s top owner in 2016. Mismanaged and unfortunate, the defending champ was winless in just two starts in 2015. This year, under new ownership and returned to the shed of former trainer Art Sherman, ‘Chrome thrived and won 7 of 8 starts, including the Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest race, and he collected over $8 million in purses!

Despite finishing second to Arrogate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, California Chrome’s outstanding seasonal body of work stands head and withers above the rest. He clearly is my Horse of the Year.

Of course, those merely are the ramblings of one man with one vote. He could be wrong more than he’s right, but he doubts it.

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: One Man, One Vote

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