Young 'Trick' deserves racing's treat 8-for-8 record draws a Horse of Year nod

December 31, 1997|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Gifts during the holidays take many forms. In horse racing, they're called the Eclipse Awards.

If I were Santa Claus (and I am, in a way, since I have a vote), this would be my gift list. Read on, and after I deliver my presents, you'll have the chance to deliver yours.

Horse of the Year will be announced Feb. 10 at the Eclipse Awards dinner in Palm Springs, Calif. The winners of individual categories will be announced Jan. 8 -- after voting by members of the National Turf Writers' Association, representatives of the tracks and Daily Racing Form.

2-year-old female and 2-year-old male: Countess Diana and Favorite Trick, both trained by Patrick Byrne, win in a romp.

Countess Diana won five of six races, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies by 8 1/2 lengths, the second-largest margin in Breeders' Cup history. She probably would be undefeated if she hadn't thrown a shoe in a June stakes race at Churchill Downs -- and lost by only half a length.

The bay filly is a daughter of Deerhound, who stood at Murmur Farm in Harford County until his recent sale and move to Kentucky.

Before joining Byrne's stable at Churchill Downs, Countess Diana was developed and conditioned by Carol and Carlos Garcia at Sagamore Farm and Laurel Park. Carlos Garcia saddled the filly for her first victory, a record-smashing, 4 1/2 -furlong sprint at Pimlico.

Favorite Trick was perfect, winning all eight races. More about him later.

3-year-old female: Ajina won only three of nine races, but they were all Grade Is, including the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Blushing K.D. won six of eight, but only one was Grade I; she raced until July before a severe injury sidelined her. And Sharp Cat won seven of 11 (seven of 10 against females), including three Grade Is.

My vote goes to Sharp Cat, even though she lost to Blushing K.D. in their only meeting (the Kentucky Oaks) and finished second twice to Ajina (Mother Goose Stakes and Breeders' Cup Distaff). Sharp Cat defeated Ajina once (Acorn Stakes).

I choose Sharp Cat, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, because she raced every month except two (August and September), raced from coast to coast in 10 Grade I or II stakes, and ran hard. Once, she even challenged the males -- as the favorite over Free House and Silver Charm in the Santa Anita Derby -- cruising to an early lead before fading to sixth.

Had Ajina won more races, I would vote for her. And had Blushing K.D. raced longer or won more major races, I would vote for her. My heart leaned toward the rags-to-riches Blushing K.D., my favorite filly of 1997.

3-year-old male: After Touch Gold knocked off Silver Charm in the Belmont and then won the Haskell Invitational Handicap, he seemed poised for a run at not only 3-year-old male champion, but also Horse of the Year. But then his foot injury, sustained in the Preakness, derailed the charge.

That means I can vote for whom I wanted to vote for all along: Silver Charm. He won two of the most thrilling Triple Crown races in history (Kentucky Derby and Preakness) before losing the Belmont and the Triple Crown by less than a length.

Along with Captain Bodgit, Free House and Touch Gold, Silver Charm elevated the Triple Crown into one of the top sporting events of the year. His enthralling run at history drew more than 70,000 people to Belmont Park.

Sprinter: After Smoke Glacken, the Maryland-bred son of Two Punch and Majesty's Crown, suffered a career-ending injury in August, I assumed he had lost all chance for an Eclipse Award. But no other dominant sprinter surfaced -- certainly not Elmhurst, who captured the Breeders' Cup Sprint, but won only three of eight races all year.

The 3-year-old Smoke Glacken was 6-for-6 in races of a mile or shorter. He beat older horses in his last race, the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash at Laurel Park. The horse did not exist in 1997 who could outsprint Smoke Glacken.

Turf male and female: Votes go to the 4-year-old colt Chief Bearhart and the 3-year-old filly Ryafan. Ryafan won three races in this country, all Grade I, after competing in Europe until August. The Canadian-bred Chief Bearhart won five of seven races, including the Breeders' Cup Turf. He finished second in the other two.

Older female: In a weak division, Hidden Lake prevails. She won three Grade I stakes in New York for trainer John Kimmel, but then flopped in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, finishing seventh after easing up in the stretch.

Steeplechase: In a year in which top jumpers took turns beating one another, Lonesome Glory captured two of his division's six Grade I events. The 9-year-old Pennsylvania-based gelding won Eclipse Awards in 1995, 1993 and 1992.

Horse of the Year: Although Carolyn and Sonny Hine -- owner and trainer of Skip Away -- are my favorite couple in racing, I cannot vote for a horse who lost more races than he won.

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