Mineshaft, Empire Maker in line for Eclipses

ON HORSE RACING

January 04, 2004|By TOM KEYSER

Finalists for Eclipse Awards will be announced tomorrow, and racing's most coveted awards will be presented Jan. 26 at a black-tie gala in Hollywood, Fla.

The same voters representing the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Daily Racing Form and National Turf Writers Association will decide the winners, but the procedure has been altered. In the past, voting followed the electoral-college method. Each organization voted as a bloc.

This year, each ballot will be tallied individually by the popular-vote method. The change was made largely at the urging of the turf writers association, which has the most voters, to produce the fairest results and most deserving winners.

As a member of the turf writers group, I have one vote. Here's how I marked my ballot.

Horse of the Year. Mineshaft. See "older male."

2-year-old filly. Halfbridled. She easily won all four races, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Watching her at 3 could be a highlight of 2004.

2-year-old male. Cuvee. Action This Day won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and Cuvee finished last. But Cuvee accomplished more during the year. No juvenile male won more than one Grade I stakes. Cuvee was the only one to win a Grade I, Grade II and Grade III.

3-year-old filly. Bird Town. No horse dominated the division, but Bird Town won two Grade I stakes (the Kentucky Oaks and the Acorn) and finished second against older females in the Grade I Beldame.

3-year-old male. Empire Maker. If the owners of Funny Cide had allowed Barclay Tagg, their trainer, to do what he wanted to do - run Funny Cide in the Discovery Handicap as a prep for the Cigar Mile - then I might have voted for the popular New York-bred gelding (assuming he had won at least one of the races).

As it was, the owners said no to the Discovery (a mere $100,000 stakes for their high-profile horse with his own store and Web site - credit cards accepted), and Tagg and his assistant Robin Smullen then decided to run Funny Cide in the Breeders' Cup Classic. He ran himself right out of Eclipse Award consideration, in my opinion. He was so rank he blew the first turn, hindering two other horses, in what was anything but a championship display.

What's more, Funny Cide's record was two wins in eight starts. Granted, he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in one glowing two-week span, but he lost six races by 39 lengths, finishing behind top 3-year-olds Ten Most Wanted and Sky Mesa (once each), and Peace Rules and Empire Maker (twice each).

Empire Maker won three Grade I stakes (Florida Derby, Wood Memorial and Belmont) and finished second in his other three races by fewer than three lengths. In head-to-head competition with Funny Cide, Empire Maker won two of three.

Let me add that despite my vote I'd be glad to see Funny Cide win for Tagg, a respected horseman who labored nearly three decades in Maryland before relocating to New York. An Eclipse Award would look grand on his gritty resume.

Older female. Sightseek. She won four Grade I stakes to Azeri's three, and she ran across the country while Azeri, for all but one race, stayed comfortably in California.

Older male. Mineshaft. You can question the caliber of horses he beat and the credibility of his owners who retired him abruptly before the Breeders' Cup Classic, but you can't question the 4-year-old's credentials: Seven victories (four Grade I races, including the Pimlico Special) and two seconds in nine races.

Sprinter. Aldebaran. He won four Grade I races, three at seven furlongs. He faltered in his only try at six furlongs (Breeders' Cup Sprint). Still, Shake You Down's one Grade II and two Grade III victories at six furlongs made him an outstanding claim for his Maryland owner, but not, in my opinion, a champion.

Female turf horse. Heat Haze. She finished fourth in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf but accomplished the most in this country over the course of the year. Only under the rarest of circumstances would I vote for a horse - such as Islington, Six Perfections or High Chaparral, all winners of Breeders' Cup races - who ran only once in this country.

Male turf horse. Storming Home. Like Heat Haze, he faltered in the Breeders' Cup but accomplished the most in this country all year.

Steeplechaser. McDynamo. He won all three of his races, all Grade I stakes.

Apprentice jockey. Eddie Castro. Calder's leading rider led apprentices in wins.

Jockey. Jerry Bailey. He broke his own record for earnings ($23,354,960) and set the record for stakes wins (70). This would be Bailey's seventh Eclipse Award.

Trainer. Bobby Frankel. He set a record for earnings ($19,143,289) and Grade I stakes wins (25). This would be Frankel's fifth Eclipse.

Breeder and Owner. Judd- monte Farms. Eclipse Awards reward, or should reward, quality. Juddmonte's breeding program is second to none. It bred and raced the winners of 11 Grade I stakes in this country. That was from a mere 122 starters who won 31 races (27 percent) and earned $6.3 million.

Michael Gill, the leading owner in Maryland and the nation, compiled 2,235 starts, 425 winners (19 percent) and $9.2 million in earnings. Even though Gill is poised to continue winning the most races year after year, I will not consider voting for him as outstanding owner until his trainers stop accumulating penalties for horses racing on illegal drugs (even though the trainers profess their innocence each time), until Gill cleanses his operation of controversies such as his veterinarian's amputating the leg of a Gill horse who broke down and was euthanized in a race at Gulfstream Park, and until Gill begins winning races at the highest level, a nod to quality over quantity.

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