The Eclipse Awards Dinner will be held Friday night in Los Angeles, with the owners or trainers of thoroughbred racing's 1976 champions on hand to receive the Oscars won by their horses.
The Californians always do an excellent job of staging this affair. What's disappointing is that no California-based runners are among last year's divisional winners. King Pellinore was an outstanding purse performer, only to finish second to Youth in the annual balloting. Likewise, Bastonera II finished ahead of Proud Delta more times than that filly defeated her, but Proud Delta's victory in the Beldame Stakes earned her a solid edge in the filly-and-more voting.
Members of three organizations participate in the Eclipse voting. They are the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, the Daily Racing Form and the National Turf Writers Association. Each group gets one vote in the final tabulation. This year, unlike many times in the past, there was no disagreement among the three chapters.
The champions are Seattle Slew, Sensational, Bold Forbes, Revidere, Forego, Proud Delta, Youth, My Juliet, and Straight And True.
The Horse of the year, for the third straight year, is Forego. No one disputes that selection. The 1976 season was Forego's finest. It was a little puzzling, however, to see Kenny Noe assign Forego 140 pounds in the 1976 Free Handicap for the Daily Racing Form.
Noe has been assigning the Free Handicap weight since 1963, excluding 1972-74. Seven horses shared the previous high weight of 136 pounds: Tom Fool (1953), Native Dancer (1954), Kelso (1963 and 1964), Gunbow (1964), Buckpasser (1967), Dr. Fager (1968) and Forego (1975).
"I am not degrading the others by giving Forego so much weight," Noe said in announcing his assessments. "But I'm not taking anything away from Forego, either. It is very difficult to compare horses racing today with those of the past. Conditions have changed. But in my opinions, when I consider the things that Forego did last year - over the last three years, actually - the weight he carried and the way he annihilated the others, I would have to say he is the best handicap horse I have ever seen."
The emphasis here is on "handicap horse." Secretariat ran only once in a handicap, under 124 pounds, a gift from Noe in the 1973 Marlboro Cup. But even in terms of horses that campaigned frequently in handicaps - giving weight to all rivals - it would seem that Noe is out of line with his 140 for Forego.
Does he really believe Forego was four pounds superior to Kelso, or to Dr. Fager, whose 1968 record is so compelling?
Kelso and Dr. Fager never carried quite as much weight over long distances as Forego did in his last season. But their opposition was much stronger. Dr. Fager had Damuscus to contend with Kelso was confronted by Gunbow, Carryback and Longo, to name but three superior runners.
Forego was superb in 1976 but his opposition lacked depth in quality. Master Derby and Royal Glint did not stay sound. Foolish Pleasure had his season crippled by injuries. Old Forbes, the best 3-year-old, raced only twice after the Belmont Stakes. Honest Pleasure, the main adversary for Forego in the fall ran his strongest races in Florida during the winter.
Forego is a wonderful old warhorse. His performance under 137 pounds in the Marlboro Cup, in defeating Honest Pleasure, made for a truly memorable event. But 140 on Forego in the Free Handicap? Never. If Kelso and Dr. Fager deserved no more than 136, neither did the 1976 champion.