BY: JOSHUA PRAIN & DEREK KIRCHNER
The general public often begins the debate on who they feel the rightful Eclipse Champions should be well before the midway point of the year. While the Facebook and Twitter banter can be playful and even sometimes hostile, it is often meaningless until we are able to step back and view the full body of work for each horse. 2018 has ended and what a year of racing it was.
While each category brings a different level of excitement, most eyes will be on who takes home the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.
Justify broke the Apollo curse and became the 13th Triple Crown Winner.
Accelerate won six of seven races including five Grade 1’s, highlighted by the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Monomoy Girl also won six of seven races including five Grade 1’s, capped off by a win in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. The Brad Cox trained filly’s only defeat came via a disqualification in the Grade 1 Cotillion Stakes at Parx.
Earlier this week three finalist were announced from each category after 249 ballots were received from the 271 eligible voters. Winners from each of the 17 categories will be revealed during the live awards show on Thursday, January 25th in South Florida.
Derek Kirchner and I give you our selections for each category along with our reasoning behind it.
- Steve Asmussen
- Bob Baffert
- Chad Brown
Josh’s Pick: Chad Brown – With a total of 47 GSW and 20 of the Grade 1 variety, no one else comes close to the year Brown had. Brown, who runs the bulk of his operation out of New York also led all trainers in earnings with a total of $27,546,057. Brown was also victorious in two Breeders’ Cup races with Sistercharlie (BC F&M Turf) and Newspaperofrecord (BC Juvenile Fillies Turf).
Derek’s Pick: Bob Baffert – He received this honor in 2015 when he conditioned Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, and he’d get my vote again this year. In addition to his second Triple Crown, he captured the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with Game Winner, saw West Coast run second in both the Pegasus World Cup and Dubai World Cup, and conditioned Abel Tasman to two Grade 1 victories.
- Irad Ortiz
- Jose Ortiz
- Mike Smith
Josh’s Pick: Jose Ortiz – It’s been amazing watching the rise of the Ortiz brothers in just a few short years. I think it’s safe to assume each of them will win their fair share of these, but this year I’m giving Jose the nod by a slim margin. While Jose trails his brother in wins and earnings, he won five more Graded Stakes than Irad with a total of 35. Jose also won Grade 1 races aboard nine different horses, compared to Irad’s six. I find Jose to be much more versatile, winning for a handful of different trainers and owners, while Irad’s main business comes from solely Chad Brown. Stand out wins for Jose included Good Magic (Haskell), Patternrecognition (Cigar Mile), Oscar Performance (Woodbine Mile), and Eskimo Kisses (Alabama). Mike Smith had a big year with his Triple Crown aboard Justify, but the full body of work is not enough for me with only 246 starts.
Derek’s Pick: Irad Ortiz Jr. – Tough call between him and Triple Crown-winner Mike Smith. Irad ranked #1 in both wins and earnings for 2018 (although in fairness he did have nearly eight times as many starts as Smith), so his daily grind on multiple circuits gets the nod from me. He was also able to snag two Breeders’ Cup victories (Filly & Mare Sprint with Shamrock Rose and Juvenile Fillies Turf with Newspaperofrecord), while his fellow Eclipse finalists were shut out of the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs.
- Reylu Gutierrez
- Weston Hamilton
- Edgar Morales
Josh’s Pick: To Close to Call! – Are you kidding me? These three guys all had a phenomenal year and are nearly identical statistically. I think the fact that Reylu Gutierrez rides on the NYRA circuit may enhance his chances a bit, so I would say he is your likeliest winner.
Derek’s’ Pick: Reylu Gutierrez – All three finalists posted similar win and ITM percentages for 2018. With no graded stakes or marquee rides under their belts, Gutierrez gets my vote based off his better track record in stakes (2-2-2- from 15 starts).
- Peter Brant
- Hronis Racing LLC
- Team Justify
Josh’s Pick: Team Justify – This is such a tough category to judge as the body of work for each ownership varies greatly. While in any other year Hronis Racing LLC and Peter Brant would be deserving winners, campaigning a Triple Crown winner kind of trumps all else. Team Justify is made up of China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners LLC, Starlight Racing, and Winstar Farm. These same connections also campaigned Florida Derby winner Audible.
Derek’s Pick: Hronis Racing LLC – Accelerate carried the banner all year for 2018’s top-earning owner, who also ranked 47th in wins, culminating with their first Breeders’ Cup victory. The group also captured multiple Grade 2 races with Gift Box and Catalina Cruiser, plus a Grade 3 with Yuvetsi.
- Mike Abraham
- John D Gunther
- Winstar Farm LLC
Josh’s Pick: John D Gunther – John along with his daughter Tanya have built quite the breeding operation over the years under their Glennwood Farm banner. Not only did Mr. Gunther breed Triple Crown winner Justify, he also bred his dam Stage Magic. 2018 G2 Wood Memorial winner, Vino Rosso was also a product of a Gunther mating.
Derek’s Pick: John D Gunther – Not only did he breed the sport’s 13th Triple Crown champion in Justify, he was a victor at Royal Ascot when Without Parole rolled to victory in the Group 1 St James’s Palace Stakes. A Triple Crown win AND Royal Ascot win? Most breeders would take one. Gunther got both.
- Jury Duty (IRE)
- Optimus Prime (FR)
- Zanjabeel (GB)
Josh’s Pick: Optimus Prime (FR) – What Derek said…
Derek’s Pick: Optimus Prime (FR) – The top ranked runner in 2018 with a 157 rating and won the Grade 2 Ferguson Memorial by over 18 lengths. He also captured the prestigious Grade 1 New York Turf Writers Cup Handicap at Saratoga. His three-start campaign included a third-place finish to Zanjabeel in the Grade 1 Lonesome Glory Handicap at Belmont Park.
Older Dirt Female
- Abel Tasman
- Marley’s Freedom
- Unique Bella
Josh’s Pick: Unique Bella – This must be one of the more disappointing categories this year. Abel Tasman completely tailed off at the end of the year and Unique Bella was unable to make it through the whole year before being retired. Marley’s Freedom had a solid campaign but mostly sprinting. She did not win past a mile. Unique Bella may have only run four-times, but she was 100% in the money and victorious in two Grade 1 races. Abel Tasman also had two Grade 1 wins, but she was off the board in her other three starts. I give Unique Bella a slight edge over the other two candidates.
Derek’s Pick: Marley’s Freedom – Unique Bella may have gotten the nod from me had her season continued past the Clement Hirsch in July. Marley’s Freedom posted just two off-the-board finishes in 2018, one being her fourth-place finish in a near four-horse photo in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.
Older Dirt Male
- City of Light
- Gun Runner
Josh’s Pick: Accelerate – Um ok, maybe we need to start adding some prerequisites in order to become an Eclipse Award candidate. I’m sorry Gun Runner, but you got yours last year. One start on the year in late January should not make you a finalist in any category no matter how weak the division may be. Accelerate had a phenomenal campaign winning five Grade 1’s and then capped it off with a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He’s a runaway winner in my eyes.
Derek’s Pick: Accelerate – Six victories, all graded stakes including five Grade 1’s. He dominated the west coast circuit all year and took on all comers in Louisville for a one-length Breeders’ Cup Classic score from the far outside post.
Female Turf Horse
- A Raving Beauty (GER)
- Enable (GB)
- Sistercharlie (IRE)
Josh’s Pick: Sistercharlie (IRE) – If we’re talking about the best Female Turf Horse in “North America” then this is an easy pick. Enable (GB) obviously pulled off a remarkable double in winning the Arc de Triomphe and the Breeders’ Cup Turf, but I don’t think her Breeders’ Cup win alone is enough to overtake Sistercharlie (GB). The Chad Brown trainee won four of five races on the year, all were Grade 1’s and all were at different racetracks. She finished her campaign by winning the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf at Churchill Downs.
Derek’s Pick: Sistercharlie (IRE) – While what Enable accomplished with her unprecedented Arc de Triomphe/Breeders’ Cup Turf is remarkable, I can’t ignore how Sistercharlie dominated the female turf division in this country all year long. Four Grade 1 victories in some of the division’s biggest races (Diana Stakes, Jenny Wiley, Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf) are the trump card for me.
Male Turf Horse
- Expert Eye (GB)
- Glorious Empire (IRE)
- Stormy Liberal
Josh’s Pick: Glorious Empire (IRE) – This is another tough category to judge. I can’t take Expert Eye for the same reason I couldn’t land on Enable. That leaves me with two horses that couldn’t be anymore different. Ultimately, I gave the nod to the former claiming horse. He was extremely impressive this summer at Saratoga for trainer James Lawrence II, with a dead heat victory in the Grade 2 Bowling Green and then a dominant win in the Grade 1 Sword Dancer. I can excuse his poor performance in the Breeders’ Cup Turf as I don’t think he wanted any part of that distance and I loved the way he rebounded back to win the Grade 2 Fort Lauderdale last month. I applaud the season Stormy Liberal had and he showed up big to win the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, but at the end of the day he only won two Graded Stakes. I felt the level of competition was not there compared to his counterpart.
Derek’s Pick: Stormy Liberal – Posted his second straight win in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint in the penultimate race of another strong season which saw him post four victories, two runner-up finishes in graded stakes, and a very respectable second-place finish in the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint on Dubai World Cup day.
- Marley’s Freedom
- Shamrock Rose
Josh’s Pick: Shamrock Rose – You can obviously make a case for Marley’s Freedom here, but what it comes down to for me is the head-to-head matchup in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Shamrock Rose finished the year strong winning four in a row, which was capped off with the Breeders’ Cup win. Marley’s Freedom had a total of four Graded Stakes scores, but two of them came in five-horse fields against questionable competition. Both of Shamrock Roses Graded Stakes wins came against 14-horse fields! Mic drop!
Derek’s Pick: Marley’s Freedom – She cruised in the Grade 1 Ballerina and crushed fellow finalist Finley’sluckycharm in the process. Five wins, four of them graded, and a runner-up finish make up for her fourth place Breeders’ Cup effort. And she has something most Eclipse finalists lack: a post-BC win (Grade 3 Go for Wand Handicap).
- Imperial Hint
- Roy H
- Stormy Liberal
Josh’s Pick: Roy H – At the end of the day Roy H benefited from the four-month layoff he took after Dubai and because of that was able to close out a consistent campaign on a high note. The Peter Miller trainee finished the year with a win in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, to give him back-to-back Grade 1’s to close out the year. Imperial Hint was fantastic during his three-race win streak that included wins in the Grade 1 Vanderbilt and Grade 1 Vosburgh. Unfortunately, he was not able to beat Roy H in the Breeders’ Cup where he finished a respectable third.
Derek’s Pick: Roy H – Imperial Hint captured two of the “classic” Grade 1 races in the division (Vanderbilt and Vosburgh) but was a disappointing sixth in the Churchill Downs Sprint. It’s a tough call, but Roy H owns the head-to-head in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint and fared well in Dubai in the Group 1 Golden Shaheen.
- Newspaperofrecord (IRE)
Josh’s Pick: Jaywalk – If I were to pick who has the brighter career ahead of them out of this group, I am 100% going to pick Newspaperofrecord (IRE). That is not the case however and as their current resume stands, I believe Jaywalk is deserving of the Eclipse. The daughter of 2018’s #1 Freshman sire Cross Traffic won four of five races on her juvenile campaign. That campaign concluded with wins in the Grade 1 Frizette and a runaway win in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile Fillies. Newspaper of record won all three of her starts, including an eye-popping display in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. I’m very much looking forward to both fillies three-year-old campaigns.
Derek’s Pick: Jaywalk – Tough call against Bellafina, who was a beast in California. Both were two-time Grade 1 winners in the fall, but Jaywalk’s head-to-head win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies propels her over the other two.
- Game Winner
- Knicks Go
Josh’s Pick: Game Winner – You can’t argue against three Grade 1 victories in just over a four-month span. The son of Candy Ride took the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity, Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes, and Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in consecutive outings. From what I saw last year Improbable has the brighter future is the likely Kentucky Derby favorite, but he didn’t debut until late September. Game Winner was making his third career start the same day Improbable debuted. Game Winner is a lock for the Eclipse, but my money is on the “Other Baffert” for next year.
Derek’s Pick: Game Winner – Four-for-four in three months of work, with three Grade 1 victories to cap off the year after breaking his maiden in August. Wins in the Del Mar Futurity and American Pharoah Stakes, along with a comfortable victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, trump the competition for year-end honors.
- Midnight Bisou
- Monomoy Girl
- Rushing Fall
Josh’s Pick: Monomoy Girl – These connections better give one hell of an acceptance speech because they’ve had months to prepare it. The Brad Cox trained filly didn’t miss a beat all year long and was a very questionable DQ away from a perfect campaign. Of her six wins, five were Grade 1’s and she finished off the year by beating older horses in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Questionably her two toughest races, she was forced to win the Kentucky Oaks and Distaff from the 11-hole.
Derek’s Pick: Monomoy Girl – A horrendous disqualification in the Grade 1 Cotillion prevented her from a seven-for-seven campaign. But six-of-seven with five Grade 1 victories is pretty good in and of itself. She turned in one of the best performances of the weekend in winning the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in her first try against older.
- Catholic Boy
Josh’s Pick: Justify –While the other two candidates showed moments of brilliance, Justify had perhaps the greatest 111-day campaign of all-time and became the 13th Triple Crown winner in history. The son of the late Scat Daddy started off his campaign in mid-February, going three for three at his home base of Santa Anita under the care of Bob Baffert. After a three-length score in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, he went on to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes. Justify was the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby after going unraced as a two-year-old since Apollo in 1882.
Derek’s Pick: Justify – JUSTIFY. Undefeated. Triple Crown winner. Enough said.
Horse of the Year
- Monomoy Girl
Josh’s Pick: Monomoy Girl – A little against the grain here I suppose, but I truly think she deserves it. The Tapizar filly but together a complete campaign and ran at six different race tracks. She was consistent for the entire year. No knocks on what the other two accomplished, but what this filly did was spectacular.
Derek’s Pick: Justify – Without a doubt the toughest decision for me to make among these selections. A solid argument could be made for any of the three finalists. Each horse posted six victories from twenty combined starts (Accelerate and Monomoy Girl each had a runner-up finish). What Justify was able to do in such a short period of time, without racing at all as a two-year-old, makes his 2018 campaign one of the more impressive feats this sport has seen.
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