Voters are now marking their ballots to pick the Eclipse Award winners of 1987, and the choices never have been tougher.
In almost none of the categories is there a clear-cut standout. Many of them pose the same dilemma: Do you honor the horse who had a long, ambitious, honorable campaign or a rival whose achievements were fewer but more brilliant? Should Alysheba be named horse of the year over Ferdinand, who beat him in the Breeders' Cup Classic? Should Theatrical be named turf champion over Manila, who had more talent but whose campaign was cut short by an injury?
When in doubt, I incline toward horses who have attempted ambitious campaigns. The way voters make their Eclipse Award choices will influence the way top horses are campaigned in the future. If trainers know they can win a trophy by coddling a horse, by ducking challenges, by aiming for only one or two important races, they'll do it. For the good of the game, they should be encouraged to be venturesome.
That is why I voted enthusiastically for Alysheba as horse of the year, despite his three-for-10 record. He ran in the country's most important races, from coast to coast, from March to November, winning two-thirds of the Triple Crown and losing the Breeders' Cup Classic by a nose. He deserves to be honored over a horse who never left California (Ferdinand), one who never left New York (Java Gold) and one who ran strictly on the turf (Theatrical).
These are my choices in the other Eclipse Award categories.
Although Forty Niner won five of his six starts and is widely considered the leader of his generation, he never ran fast and he cravenly ducked the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Nuts to him. Success Express, the winner of that $1 million race, might not have been as consistent (he finished out of the money in last weekend's Hollywood Juvenile), but he had much more talent than Forty Niner and deserves the title.
Trainer King Leatherbury's filly Thirty Eight Go Go won stakes in New Jersey by 12 lengths and in New York by five lengths in a fashion that suggest she was America's best of her age and sex. Some local racing fans would argue on behalf of the undefeated Sham Say (who beat Thirty Eight Go Go at Laurel when conditions were very much in her favor), but Sham Say never ventured away from her home track. In any event, both of them are vastly superior to the fluky Breeders' Cup winner, Epitome. She'll probably win the Eclipse Award, but if she ever faces Thirty Eight Go Go I'd love to make a horse-for-horse bet against any voter who casts his ballot for Epitome.
Alysheba, for the same reasons that he is horse of the year.
Pampered little Personal Ensign ran a grand total of four times this fall (only twice in stakes) and then skipped the Breeders' Cup because her trainer thought it would be too taxing. Nuts to her. Sacahuista might not have been as brilliant as her undefeated rival, but she did show up for the Breeders' Cup and she did win it decisively.
Older Colt or Gelding:
Voters for racing championships always have late-season stakes fresh in their mind while forgetting what happened early in the campaign. As a result, Ferdinand is a lock to be the champion in this division -- and maybe the horse of the year. But Broad Brush was every bit as good a racehorse; he finished in the money in all nine of his starts, and he beat Ferdinand in two of their three meetings during the winter.
Older Filly or Mare:
There was no a single exceptional campaigner in this category, but on her best days Infinidad could trounce her rivals -- as she showed when she won the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood by six lengths. She fizzled as the odds-on favorite in the Breeders' Cup, but still merits the title.
Male Turf Horse:
Manila was the most talented grass runner in America, and soundly beat Theatrical in their only meeting before his season was cut short by an injury. Theatrical then went on to dominate the major turf races and win the Breeders' Cup. Who should be the champion? It is a tough call, but I am voting for Theatrical. It is a pity that Manila was hurt, but as Jimmy Carter once observed, life is not always fair.
Female Turf Horse:
The French filly Miesque's runaway victory in the Breeders' Cup Mile suggested that she was vastly superior to all the U.S.-based turf fillies.
Although Groovy was upset, fair and square, by Very Subtle in the Breeders' Cup Sprinter, his overall campaign was exemplary: seven starts, six wins, two track records.
Glenn Lane has done a brilliant job managing his far-flung stable. His great coup was claiming the colt Parochial for $50,000 and seeing him develop into one of the country's better stakes horses by the end of the year.
Jack Van Berg became the first trainer in history to win 5,000 races and did an excellent job keeping Alysheba fit through a long, tough campaign. Moreover, he showed himself to be a classy human being -- keeping his humor and good grace when tough losses cost him millions of dollars. In all respects he was a striking contrast with D. Wayne Lukas, who leads the country's trainers in statistical achievements, but in no other way.
None of the usual big names -- Day, Santos, Cordero, Pincay, McCarron -- had seasons that were any better than one might have expected for them. (Day, the favorite in the category, gave one of the year's worst single performances when he lost The Jockey Club Gold Cup aboard Java Gold). But one American rider did have an extraordinary season -- and I am voting for her. Since women broke into the riding profession nearly 20 years ago, none had ever been able to compete consistently well at the upper echelon of the sport, until Julie Krone did so in 1987.
Local boy makes good. Maryland-based Kent Desormeaux, the country's top race-winning rider, is probably the biggest standout in any of the Eclipse categories.