Balloting has begun to determine the champion racehorses of 1979, and it's going to be the same old story: The world will be wrong and I'll be right.
Since no one has ever set standards that a horse should meet to win an Eclipse Award, voters have settled on their own crude rule of thumb: if Horse A beats Horse B in a major race during the fall, A is that champ. It doesn't matter if B were carrying 130 pounds, had been broken down by an incompetent trainer, or had already trounced A in the winter, spring and summer.
A voter, like a handicapper, ought to look beyond horses' superficial won-lost records to determine which is superior. Having done so, these are my Eclipse Award selections.
HORSE OF THE YEAR -- Spectacular Bid was the best thoroughbred to race in America during 1979, though by now his trainer Bud Delp and I may be the last two people to believe it. Affirmed will get the title in a near-unanimous vote because he defeated Bid in their only meeting, the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.
But the conditions of a race can determine its outcome. If the horses' confrontatin had come in the Marlboro Cup, and Spectacular Bid had won while getting a nine-pound weight concession, that would not have proved his superiority. By the same token, if Bid lost while coming off a four-week layoff, running at Affirmed's best distance in a field where the lack of other front-runners gave Affirmed an enormous advantage, that would not prove his inferiority. I thought Spectacular Bid's 3/4-length loss under those disadvantageous circumstances was a heroic performance. Under more neutral conditions, he would have whipped Affirmed.
TWO-YEAR-OLD COLT -- Rockhill Native is the least gifted 2-year-old champion in years, but he was clearly the best of a bad lot in the East. There is drum-beating on the West Coast for a colt named The Carpenter, whose owner has hired a PR firm to campaign for the honor, but he is not in Rockhill Native's league.
TWO-YEAR-OLD FILLY -- Genuine Risk won all four of her races this fall, finishing her abbreviated campaign with a nose victory over Smart Angle at Aqueduct last week. But Smart Angle was giving her five pounds, and was completing a long, tough campaign, having run in seven stakes (winning six of them) from July through October. Because her list of accomplishments is so much longer, Smart Angle deserves the title over Genuine Risk.
Three-year-old Colt -- Spectacular Bid, of course.
THREE-YEAR-OLD FILLY -- Davona Dale was the best 3-year-old of her sex to run in America since Ruffian, but she may not even win an Eclipse Award. The Calument Farm filly won stakes in Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky and Maryland, and then swept New York's triple crown series in brilliant fashion. After all that exertion she was tired by the summer, and she lost twice to the late-blooming It's In The Air, who may win the championship as a result. But any voter who believes It's In The Air is the superior filly is an ignoramus.
OLDER MALE -- Affirmed.
OLDER FILLY OR MARE -- Pearl Necklace probably deserves the title, but I cannot bring myself to honor any animal who burns up my $1,000 as an even-money favorite. Abstain.
MALE TURF HORSE -- Bowl Game will win the title because of his late-season winning streak, climaxed by his victory in the Washington, D.C. International. But Noble Dancer II, who did his winning earlier in the year, was probably the better horse. He won four of seven on the grass, and lost only when he was conceding significant weight to good horses. Bowl Game beat him by less than a length when Noble Dancer was carrying 130 pounds to his 122.
FEMALE TURF HORSE -- Pearl Necklace. I'll forgive her in this category.
SPRINTER -- Star de Naskra was the outstanding six-and seven-furlong runner in the country, and the only thing that can keep him from the title is voters' prejudice against his Maryland origins.
LEADING TRAINER -- Laz Barrera should be given a perpetual Eclipse Award trophy so that other trainers could get a chance for some recognition. I'd like to have cast a vote for Angel Penna or Bud Delp, who did outstanding work all year, but Barrera is in a class by himself.
LEADING JOCKEY -- I will keep voting for America's greatest rider, Angel Cordero Jr., until he gets the honor he deserves. But Laffit Pincay, whose mounts have earned more than $7 million this year, is a cinch to keep Cordero waiting another year.