Thoroughbred racing will celebrate its equine and human champions in the industry’s annual excuse to dust off the tuxedo Jan. 16 at the Beverly Wiltshire Hotel in Beverly Hills.
While I’m still unhappy with the bulk of last year’s Eclipse attendees for their shamefully tepid reception for Claiborne Farm’s Seth Hancock when he accepted the much-deserved Eclipse Award of Merit for his family farm’s century of work, I’m letting bygones be bygones (more or less) and looking ahead to Monday.
I don’t have an Eclipse Award vote (bygones, bygones), but had I been worthy of a vote, these would have been my choices for top honors of 2011:
HORSE OF THE YEAR: HAVRE DE GRACE
The 4-year-old filly gets my vote because she had a better, more ambitious year than any of the boys.
Girl Power rules for the third time in four years, although I would not have voted for Zenyatta last year.
Mine would have gone to Blame, so score one in my absence for the Zenyatta Nation.
The greatest bit of news on this category is that Havre de Grace is preparing for a 5-year-old campaign, so let’s say “Bravo!” to owner Rick Porter and Kentucky-born trainer J. Larry Jones for their plan to share her with racing fans for another season.
THREE-YEAR-OLD MALE: ANIMAL KINGDOM
One of the few real Eclipse Award debates for 2011 is the spat among backers of Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Caleb’s Posse.
I love the latter, but the nod goes to the Derby winner. His campaign was shortened by injury, but it was a wonderful run.
My vote for him is a “check the scoreboard” tally. Since Animal Kingdom won the race, it means volumes more than any other. And, don’t forget he won the Preakness as well. He just didn’t get there in the Belmont. Plus, Caleb’s Posse’s wins all came at one-turn distances and there is another category in which he is a much better fit.
THREE-YEAR-OLD FILLY: ROYAL DELTA
The Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic winner took a little while to get rolling, but her second half of the year was tremendous. Her only thumping was delivered by Havre de Grace (check the HOY selection).
OLDER MALE: ACCLAMATION
He had a terrific year against top competition on grass in California and won the Pacific Classic on synthetic Polytrack at Del Mar.
I would have loved to have seen him run on the Churchill Downs dirt in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, though probably would have run on grass.
A pre-Cup injury knocked Acclamation out of the event, but not out of my top spot in this category.
OLDER FEMALE: HAVRE DE GRACE
This wonderful mare gets my imaginary vote, but Blind Luck, whose year ended prematurely after she ran the only bad race of her life, still has my heart. The latter beat the likely champion in the Delaware Handicap, which easily gets my nod for “Race of the Year.”
MALE SPRINTER: CALEB’S POSSE
Nobody was better at one turn on dirt than this 3-year-old.
FEMALE SPRINTER: HILDA’S PASSION
Tough call here in a category that includes the 1-2 finishers in Churchill Downs’ Derby Day Humana Distaff – and Sassy Image whipped heavily-favored Hilda’s Passion that day.
It’s a tight vote, but the brilliant win by Hilda’s Passion in Saratoga’s Ballerina, a race in which she suffered a season-ending injury, gives her a slight edge.
My guess is that Union Rags will end up being the better horse and Kentucky Derby contender, but Hansen whipped him head-up in their only meeting in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Trainer Mike Maker’s unbeaten gray colt gets the edge for getting the job done against his top rival in the big one.
TWO-YEAR-OLD FILLY: MY MISS AURELIA
It’s the easiest category of 2011 because trainer Steve Asmussen’s unbeaten filly was simply the best.
MALE TURF HORSE: ACCLAMATION
I’ll give him the narrow edge because of his California body of work, although European shippers Cape Blanco and Breeders’ Cup Turf winner St. Nicholas Abbey make it an entertaining discussion.
FEMALE TURF HORSE: STACELITA
The European import had a solid body of work in the U.S. before her flameout on Breeders’ Cup Day. That’s enough here.
TRAINER: BILL MOTT
It was a magical season for Mott, who scored Breeders’ Cup wins in the Ladies’ Classic with Royal Delta and the Classic upset by Drosselmeyer.
A Kentucky Derby win – the only thing missing from the résumé of the all-time training leader at Churchill Down – will come, perhaps as early as this year.
JOCKEY: JOHN VELAZQUEZ
Ramon Dominguez had a fantastic year, but Velazquez ranked second to that rival in 2011 earnings and won the Kentucky Derby aboard Animal Kingdom, one of the great pick-up mounts in racing history.
OWNER & BREEDER: KEN AND SARAH RAMSEY
The Nicholasville, Ky. couple had another fantastic year, thanks to their faith in, and support, of their star stallion, Kitten’s Joy.
Winners with their homebred Stephanie’s Kitten, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, and multiple stakes winner Headache. Let’s get the Ramseys two new trophies for a terrific year.
APPRENTICE JOCKEY: RYAN CURATALO
The young Frenchman follows in the footsteps of former Eclipse-winning apprentice and countryman Julien Leparoux, now the King of Kentucky racing and one of the world’s top riders.
STEEPLECHASE: BLACK JACK BLUES
His U.S. campaign was brief, but impressive enough to get my imaginary vote in this category.