Let’s talk about coronations.
No, not the one scheduled for Westminster Abbey in London late this spring, although we’ll get back to that.
This is about the coronation of a horse, already talked about before he walked off a racing surface for the final time as the latter-day Secretariat, anointed by the gurus who set such numbers as the best in the world in 2022, equal in status to Frankel.
In short, it’s about the presumed crowning of Flightline as the 2022 North American Horse of the Year at the Eclipse Awards ceremony Jan. 26 at The Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla. The actual results of the voting, of course, are a closely guarded secret. But if ever there were a safe bet in horse racing, this is it.
The event follows by just a week the ceremonies at the historic Banqueting Hall in London, where Flightline was named Longines World’s Best Racehorse with a rating of 140 — equaling Frankel’s best-ever mark under the current system.
But the Florida ceremony is by no means an anticlimax. The Eclipse Awards, with all respect to the international racing community, are the epitome of honor for North American racing and this year’s gala is designed to reflect that in a big way.
The Breakers resort dates to 1896. It was founded by Henry M. Flagler, a larger-than-life entrepreneur, and descriptions of its current manifestation, opened in 1926, utilize words like “opulent” and its clientele as “glitterati.” The ceremonies for a sold-out crowd of some 500 guests for the Eclipse Awards, presented by John Deere, Keeneland, and The Jockey Club, include a raw bar, caviar, filet, and a top-shelf bar.
Flightline’s trainer, John Sadler, said, “This is really special. We had a great time in Europe. We were sitting with the head of the Japan Racing Association and the Hong Kong Jockey Club and it was very elegant. But this is the big one for us. We’re Californians and this is it.”
The Eclipse Awards have moved around and the 2022 event, emerging from the pandemic pause, was held in a luxuriously appointed temporary facility outside the Santa Anita clubhouse.
The Breakers entered the picture thanks to the new CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Tom Rooney, who grew up in Palm Beach. While the very nature of the event makes each year’s Eclipse Awards important to the recipients, Rooney said he wanted this edition to be ultra-attractive.
“I was trying to figure out something that people look forward to and want to come to,” Rooney said. “Their staff and ability to coordinate an event is very professional. Selfishly, I wanted it to be special.
“I don’t want to hear people say, ‘Oh, the Eclipse Awards. I have to go to that again.’ It shouldn’t be like that.”
And there’s a royal connection for Rooney, too.
“When I was in high school,” he said, “Princess Diana and Prince Charles used to go down there. So, it seems appropriate.”
(In 1980, according to the Palm Beach Post, then-Prince Charles was admitted briefly to Good Samaritan Hospital in West Palm Beach suffering from heat exhaustion after a rigorous afternoon of polo in 90-degree heat).
Flightline is a cinch to garner both Horse of the Year and champion older male Eclipse Awards after winning all three 2022 starts, all Grade 1 events. Those were not just wins but dominations of his rivals and the Tapit colt, out of the Indian Charlie mare Feathered, was never tested. His 19 1/4-length romp in the TVG Pacific Classic Stakes cemented his place in history along with stars such as Secretariat.
“On that day, on that track,” Sadler said, “I don’t think any horse ever could have beat him. I guess this ceremony really is a coronation,” he added with a chuckle.
Sadler himself, however, isn’t a candidate for a crown — or an Eclipse statuette.
The colt’s breeder, Jane Lyon’s Summer Wind Equine, and jockey Flavien Prat are both among the three finalists for Eclipse honors in their categories but Sadler didn’t even rate a place among the three finalists for the trainer award, losing out to Steve Asmussen, Chad Brown, and Todd Pletcher.
That’s not without historical precedent. Secretariat’s team didn’t sweep the 1973 awards, either. The owner and breeder awards were combined back then and Penny Chenery’s Meadow Stable/Meadow Stud, Secretariat’s owner and breeder, won. But trainer Lucien Laurin lost out to H. Allen Jerkens and Laffit Pincay Jr. took the jockey award over Secretariat’s rider, Ron Turcotte.
Sadler said he wasn’t particularly surprised he didn’t make the final three, although, “I’ve always wanted to pitch a perfect game and we did it last year.”
“I may not have the numbers,” he said. “That award now goes to the mega-trainers with huge stables running all over. We train a relatively small string here in California so we don’t rise to the top of the charts.”
The awards are determined by 258 eligible members of the NTRA (consisting of member racetrack racing officials and Equibase field personnel), the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, and Daily Racing Form. Finalists were determined by voters’ top three selections, using a 10-5-1 point basis. The Eclipse Award winners are determined solely by first-place votes.
Most of the rest of the 2022 Eclipse Award categories have odds-on favorites with question marks largely surrounding the 3-year-old male, male sprinter, and female turf voting.
The 3-year-old male category is a scramble with three different winners from the Triple Crown races and the career-ending injury suffered in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic by Epicenter, who was regarded as the division leader through most of the year’s ups and downs.
Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve winner Rich Strike, who didn’t win another race in 2022 after the Derby, is not among the top three. Runhappy Santa Anita Derby winner Taiba and Modern Games, winner of the Ricoh Woodbine Mile Stakes and FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Mile Presented by PDJF join Epicenter on the list. A victory by a turf miler in this division would be an upset.
The finalists among male sprinters are Cody’s Wish, Elite Power, and Jackie’s Warrior. They’re tough to separate but the emotional story of Cody’s Wish and his teenage namesake, Cody Dorman, may have swayed some votes.
In the female turf category, In Italian, Regal Glory, and War Like Goddess all have stellar credentials and supporters. All are based in the United States, War Like Goddess with trainer Bill Mott and the others with Chad Brown.
Whoever wins in those categories, The Breakers might be a more historically appropriate place for a coronation than the site of the Longines ceremony a week earlier.
The Banqueting Hall, completed in 1622 and featuring the only remaining in-situ ceiling fresco by Rubens, hasn’t seen coronations. But it was the site of the beheading of King Charles I in 1649.
Which brings us full circle to royalty and another impending coronation.
King Charles III has chosen Saturday, May 6, the first Saturday in May, for his ceremony.
The first Saturday in May—Kentucky Derby day.