By Ed McNamara
Our usracing.com contributor Ed McNamara has been covering horse racing for many years and is among the more than 230 voters in the Eclipse Award balloting process. Here’s his ballot with his top choices. (The winners will be announced on Thursday, Feb. 10)
It shaped up as a showdown between superstar jockeys, a battle for the Eclipse Award matching Irad Ortiz, Jr. and Joel Rosario. Too bad it didn’t happen.
On Dec. 2, Rosario fractured a rib in a spill at Aqueduct, sidelining him for more than a month. Ortiz was in the perfect spot to capitalize on his absence, but the next day he blew it.
The hyperaggressive Ortiz, notorious for herding opponents, went over the line on the Big A’s backstretch. He recklessly drifted about six paths toward the rail on Gran Casique and bumped Ragtime Blues hard, unseating apprentice Omar Hernandez Moreno. Fortunately, there were no injuries, but two days later Ortiz was handed a 30-day suspension that probably denied him his fourth consecutive Eclipse.
The 51st annual Eclipse Awards ceremony will be televised live from Santa Anita on TVG Thursday at 8 p.m. ET. Rosario, 37, is considered the best active rider never to win the trophy, and he’s expected to break through this time. He got my vote.
His agent, Ron Anderson, considered it a no-brainer three months ago. In a text to me on Nov. 15, Anderson wrote: “If Joel doesn’t get this award, they need to stop giving this award out!”
Not exactly an unbiased observer, but lots of insiders agree with Anderson.
If not for the rib injury, Rosario might have set three records. He won 49 graded stakes, six short of Jerry Bailey’s 2003 mark, and took 69 stakes, seven shy of Garrett Gomez’s 2007 total. Also within reach was Ortiz’s 2019 earnings record of $34,109,919. Rosario stalled at $32,944,478.
Ortiz led in winning percentage (23.3-21.5) and victories (366-228). Despite accepting 360 fewer mounts, Rosario was ahead by more than $3.7 million and by 13 stakes wins. The regular rider on presumptive Horse of the Year Knicks Go also dominated the sportsmanship category. You can be sure Ortiz’s outrageous tactics on Gran Casique cost him many votes.
In a poll by horseracingnation.com, Rosario was the choice of all six journalists. A tiny sample but revealing anyway. So is this quote from the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Mike Brunker: “Don’t see how you could deny Joel Rosario his first Eclipse.” John Pricci of horseraceinsider.com also went with Rosario, as did longtime California journalist Art Wilson.
A year ago, many thought Rosario had done enough to deserve the Eclipse. Two weeks before the results were announced, I asked him about it.
“We’ll see what happens,” he told usracing.com. “I’d love to win an Eclipse Award. It would be very special.”
His time has come.
Here’s the rest of my ballot, one of 235 cast by members of the NTRA, racing officials and Equibase field personnel, National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, and Daily Racing Form:
2-year-old male: Corniche
Corniche’s 3-for-3 season, capped by the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, made him an easy pick.
2-year-old filly: Echo Zulu
Echo Zulu’s 4-for-4 campaign, including a 5 1/4-length romp in the Juvenile Fillies, made her a slam dunk.
3-year-old male: Essential Quality
Even though Essential Quality was 0-for-2 (by a combined 1 1/2 lengths) against Medina Spirit in the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic, I gave him a slight edge off victories in the Belmont and Travers. Not an easy decision, and I don’t question anyone who went the other way.
3-year-old filly: Malathaat
Malathaat came up just short in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, but Grade 1 scores in the Ashland, Kentucky Oaks and Alabama were enough for me.
Older dirt male: Knicks Go
Knicks Go was an all-or-nothing guy — five stakes wins by an average of 4.8 lengths, two fourth-place flops — but he was impossible to get past. My second-place vote went to Silver State, his conqueror in the Met Mile.
Older dirt female: Letruska
I thought Letruska had it clinched before the Distaff, which was one race too many in a very ambitious season. Her 10th-place dud at Del Mar didn’t diminish six wins in seven stakes from late January into October.
Male sprinter: Jackie’s Warrior
Like many of my other picks, Jackie’s Warrior disappointed in the Breeders’ Cup. However, his four stakes wins, including one over the brilliant Life Is Good, earned my vote. Flightline’s Malibu was otherworldly. I thought about picking him but would have preferred to see him crush one more Grade 1.
Female sprinter: Gamine
Gamine’s fade to third in the BC Filly & Mare Sprint kept her from a 5-for-5 year, but four stakes scores (three Grade 1s) were impressive enough. My runner-up, Ce, beat her in the Breeders’ Cup but lost their previous meeting
Male turf horse: Yibir
English shipper Yibir closed like a cheetah in his only North American races, wins in the Jockey Club Invitational and Breeders’ Cup Turf (final quarter-mile in under 23 seconds). It’s a rare horse who can finish like that at 1 1/2 miles.
Female turf horse: Althiqa
My pick, two-time Grade 1 winner Althiqa, didn’t impress enough voters to put her among the three finalists. Her late surges took the Just a Game and the Diana, but a surprisingly weak fourth in Keeneland’s First Lady, her season finale, cost her dearly.
Steeplechase horse: The Mean Queen
The Mean Queen (5-for-6 in the U.S., three Grade 1 wins) was a lock.
In the year of Godolphin, Sheikh Mohammed’s royal blue silks dominated on both sides of the Atlantic. His runners scooped up 11 Grade 1s in North America, seven better than any other stable, and earned $17,265,124, $10.3 million more than runner-up Klaravich Stables.
Another runaway for Godolphin, which bred winners of 10 Grade 1s, five more than No. 2 Stonestreet, and earned $18,158,215, exceeding runner-up Calumet Farm by almost $3 million.
Trainer: Brad Cox
The finalists are defending champ Brad Cox, Steve Asmussen and Chad Brown, with a vote for any of them making sense. I gave it to Cox, who besides training Knicks Go and Essential Quality led in total earnings and Grade 1 cash.
Apprentice jockey: Jessica Pyfer
I selected Jessica Pyfer, who made a splash breaking in on the tough Southern California circuit. Her 56 wins were 20 fewer than John Hiraldo, who had 77 more mounts while based mainly in the Mid-Atlantic. Pyfer earned $2,738,363, exceeding Hiraldo by almost $735,000. Either young rider is deserving.
Horse of the Year: Knicks Go clinched the ultimate prize with his blowout in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. I didn’t think twice about it, and if he’s not a unanimous selection, he should be. I put Essential Quality second and Medina Spirit third.
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.