In “Making Claims,” Paulick Report bloodstock editor Joe Nevills shares his opinions on the Thoroughbred industry from the breeding and sales arenas to the racing world and beyond.
Voting for the Eclipse Awards closed this afternoon at 3 p.m. Eastern, giving us all a moment to unclench our jaws in the eternal argument of which racehorse is better than another … at least until the finalists are announced, and we all get upset about who did and didn’t make the cut. Outrage is cyclical.
My Eclipse Awards ballot is shared publicly as a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters’ bloc of voters, so in the interest of transparency, I’ll share how I filled it out, along with my reasoning for each category.
Each category had me looking inward to answer questions about myself and the industry at large. As I reveal my ballot, I’ll start with the question I asked myself about each category, and how I answered it with my votes.
Now seems like a good time for my annual Eclipse ballot disclaimer.
If you think I’m off-base with any of my votes, just remember these three things: First, the voting is closed, so nothing I say here can swing any undecided voters. I publish these after voting closes every year for that exact reason.
Second, back in 2011, one intrepid voter chose Drosselmeyer as champion turf male in a campaign where his lone start on grass was a seventh-place effort. No matter how much we might disagree on who should be placed where, please understand that someone out there will go further off the deep end than any of us could imagine and cancel me out.
Third, at least 235 voters turned in ballots during last year’s Eclipse Awards. No matter how I vote, my share of the pie is so insignificant that in almost every circumstance, a vote with or against the current (real or perceived in your own mind) is going to get swept up into the greater tide.
Let’s get on with it.
Champion 2-Year-Old Male
Question: How do we arrange the chairs behind Forte?
- Cave Rock
- Victoria Road
Forte was a slam-dunk as soon as he crossed the wire in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Cave Rock would have been a slam-dunk if he’d have won, instead of finishing second. It’s a pretty wide chasm between those two and the rest of the field, and lacking a knockout contender for the third slot, I defaulted to Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner Victoria Road.
Champion 2-Year-Old Female
Question: Same question, but with Wonder Wheel?
- Wonder Wheel
- Leave No Trace
- And Tell Me Nolies
Wonder Wheel was a slam-dunk as soon as she crossed the wire in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, and it gets pretty dusty after that.
Leave No Trace got the nod for second for maintaining a Grade 1-caliber campaign throughout the summer and fall, notching a Grade 1 score in the Spinaway Stakes and finishing second to Wonder Wheel in the Breeders’ Cup. Similar story for And Tell Me Nolies, who was the top 2-year-old filly on the West Coast.
If you ask yourself, “Why not Chocolate Gelato, Hoosier Philly, Julia Shining, or Meditate?” they could have all just as easily finished second or seventh in order of preference, along with Leave No Trace and And Tell Me Nolies, and I’d have slept exactly the same at night. Someone had to take those spots, and that’s where it landed.
Champion 3-Year-Old Male
Question: Epicenter or Taiba?
- Modern Games
Let’s be honest with each other. This category is probably the reason you’re reading this thing in the first place.
When the ballots first arrived, the vote from my heart told me to put Epicenter on top. While he is perhaps known for the races he lost as much as the ones he won, it still felt like he ran a more complete campaign. Furthermore, I’ve never been a fan of horses that have to use the G1 Malibu Stakes as an emergency measure to insert themselves into the conversation as an Eclipse candidate or a stallion prospect.
Then, Taiba won the Malibu, giving him a trio of Grade 1 victories on the year, and I realized I would need to put my heart aside and vote with my head. Out came the spreadsheets.
Each horse finished ahead of the other in one race apiece, even if Taiba’s triumph in that column came when Epicenter was vanned off the track after suffering an injury during the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Neither horse beat older competition, so that tiebreaker was out, as well.
What it ended up boiling down to for me was strength of schedule. Who did each horse beat? How many good horses did they conquer? How many great horses did they conquer?
To solve this, I put a chart together tallying each graded stakes winner Epicenter and Taiba finished ahead of in 2022. They didn’t have to win the race for it to count, they just had to cross the line ahead of them. Here’s how it shook out, with each horse labeled with their highest level of graded stakes success.
Epicenter beat more graded stakes winners than Taiba by a margin of 28 to 24, and he bested more Grade 1 winners 14 to 12. That feat was made even more impressive when you consider that Epicenter was a DNF in the Breeders’ Cup and didn’t gain anything for his column from that race. If he had even finished in the middle of the pack, this would have been a runaway.
Also, doing well in the Triple Crown just scores points with me. That might seem out of sorts, being as though none of the three Triple Crown race winners made my ballot (Rich Strike was close, but he needed to win another race. Any race. Couldn’t get it done.), but Epicenter put in efforts that would have won most runnings of both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. When the stakes were the highest at Churchill Downs, Epicenter beat everything but a miracle, and Taiba finished 12th. Then two weeks later, Epicenter almost became that miracle himself while Taiba watched from home. Some races just count for more, and when the margins are so narrow, that matters.
Modern Games’ domination of older foes was impossible to ignore, but I have a hard time putting international horses with limited North American starts on top in a category unless there are no other good options, so I pledged him to second place, and then whoever lost out between Epicenter and Taiba would get the third-place vote. The winner is only determined by first place votes, and whoever doesn’t win between Epicenter and Taiba is safely going to be a finalist, so there’s no harm in giving Modern Games a deserved little boost.
Champion 3-Year-Old Female
Question: What do you do with the rest of a division when one horse beat up on everybody?
Nest was an easy choice on top, but the main-track two-turn sophomore fillies behind her had a hard time stringing together lots of wins, even when they tried to race elsewhere. So, I looked elsewhere.
I’m a huge believer in Spendarella. I wish her campaign had been longer, but I firmly believe she was the top U.S.-based 3-year-old filly on turf in 2022 – especially after she ran off with the G1 Del Mar Oaks. She won graded stakes races at Del Mar, Keeneland, and Gulfstream Park, and she put in a world-class effort running second in the G1 Coronation Stakes during the Royal Ascot meet. She didn’t run in the division that’s most appealing to Eclipse voters, but I think she was the best at what she did, which is more than a lot can say.
Matareya’s reasoning is similar to Spendarella’s. I wish she’d have run past August, but she never threw a dud, and she racked up a trio of graded stakes wins around one turn to a mile, including a 6 1/4-length score in the G1 Acorn Stakes.
Champion Older Dirt Male
Question: Is this the easiest category to select?
- Life Is Good
Flightline was the best horse in the division, Life Is Good was the second-best horse, and Olympiad was the third-best horse. Pretty simple. If the Breeders’ Cup Classic result made you flip second and third, you won’t find fault with me.
Cody’s Wish was fourth on the list, and I’d have loved to put him at the table, but I struggled to justify taking a seat away from any of the top three to do it.
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Champion Older Dirt Female
Question: Can we take awards from some of the other categories and give out two or three here?
- Blue Stripe
This was the most exciting division in North American Thoroughbred racing in 2022, culminating with the most exciting race of last year’s Breeders’ Cup. Just about every major horse showed up to every major race where you’d like to see them, and most of the time, those races were wars.
A trio of noses ultimately decided the top three in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. If the head-bobs had bobbed differently, the top three here would have likely bobbed with them.
That being said, Malathaat feels right as the winner. She ran at a consistently high level all year, she won the big race at the end and her only two defeats on her record were runner-up efforts to another likely Eclipse finalist. Blue Stripe gets the edge over Clairiere by virtue of the head bob in the Distaff, and her consistency being a shade better than Clairiere, who ran an uncharacteristic fifth in the G1 Personal Ensign.
Champion Male Sprinter
Question: How much does the Breeders’ Cup really matter?
- Jackie’s Warrior
- Jack Christopher
- Elite Power
Over the course of his career, Jackie’s Warrior did just about everything but win a Breeders’ Cup race. Over the course of his career, Jack Christopher did just about everything but run in a Breeders’ Cup race. Over the course of his career Elite Power has done little else but win a Breeders’ Cup race (and the G2 Vosburgh, but that ruins the joke, doesn’t it?).
Jackie’s Warrior started the year as the top sprinter in the land, and though his form tailed off a bit near the end of the season, the horse best suited to usurp him – two-time Grade 1 winner Jack Christopher – couldn’t capitalize after being removed from Breeders’ Cup contention. Elite Power didn’t jump up to graded stakes competition until later in the season, so it was too little, too late to put him on top, but he definitely earned a seat at the table.
Champion Female Sprinter
Question: Will this be the most spread-out voting among equine finalists?
- Goodnight Olive
Goodnight Olive is easy. Two Grade 1s around one turn, including the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. I wish she had more than four total starts and two against graded foes, but she went undefeated, and in a scattershot division like this, that’s usually enough.
Where things get interesting is with her bridesmaids. Breeders’ Cup runner up Echo Zulu and third Wicked Halo will likely garner a lot of votes, but Echo Zulu only raced twice and won once around one turn, and Wicked Halo did a fair bit of losing. Kudos must be given to Caravel for upsetting a stacked field of males in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, and while she also lost plenty, she did enough winning elsewhere that a Breeders’ Cup win of that caliber can move and shake. As mentioned earlier, Matareya’s resume is hurt by its abrupt end, but not by her on-track efforts.
Champion Male Turf Horse
Question: Are we sure this division is good?
- Modern Games
- Casa Creed
No, it’s not.
Once again, the European contingent spent most of this year’s big races coming overseas and shaking down our best on the grass for their lunch money. Modern Games was the best at this play, winning two North American races as a 3-year-old against older competition: the G1 Woodbine Mile and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He also won the French 2,000 Guineas, to boot.
Nobody else even belongs in the conversation. If I could have just written “Mickey Mouse” in the other two spots and not lost my vote for years to come, I would have.
Champion Female Turf Horse
Question: Which name would you like on your trophy, Mr. Brant?
- Regal Glory
- In Italian
- War Like Goddess
It’s going to be one of the top two here. Both are owned by Peter Brant, both are trained by Chad Brown, and both won four of seven starts with two runner-up efforts. The victory speeches won’t even change if one wins over the other. In Italian was more consistent and ran better in the Breeders’ Cup, but Regal Glory spent the entire season running and winning at the highest levels, while In Italian took a steady climb to the top.
Champion Steeplechase Horse
Question: Will I let a small but vocal group on social media bully me into voting on a group of horses for which I have no professional ties or obligations?
Nope. One of the dirty little secrets of the Eclipse Awards is that they hand out the trophy whether I vote in a category or not. If you have energy to focus on this category, use it to celebrate the winner instead of chiding the people who choose to let the folks who actually know the niche product decide which horse is the best. Your corner of the sport will look better for it.
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Question: Godolphin, am I right?
- Peter Brant
- Klaravich Stables, Inc.
The blue team had 13 North American Grade 1 wins, which was nearly double next-closest Peter Brant with seven. After that, a bunch of owners tied with three each. Their earnings were more than $6.5 million higher than next-closest Klaravich Stables. Godolphin had four Breeders’ Cup winners (Cody’s Wish in the Dirt Mile, Modern Games in the Mile, Mischief Magic in the Juvenile Turf Sprint, and Rebel’s Romance in the Turf), and they essentially won as they pleased when trainer Charlie Appleby shipped stateside. It’s not even close here.
Question: Godolphin, am I right?
- Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings
- Ashview Farm & Colts Neck Stable
Second verse, same as the first. Godolphin’s 12 Grade 1 wins as a breeder were more than the next two best combined (Stonestreet with seven and Ashview & Colts Neck with four). Their 20 total graded wins were as many as the next two spots combined (Stonestreet with 14 and five breeders tied with six). All four of Godolphin’s Breeders’ Cup winners were homebreds. It’s not even close here.
Question: What do we do with Irad Ortiz Jr.?
- Irad Ortiz Jr.
- Flavien Prat
- Tyler Gaffalione
There are some extremely valid criticisms of Irad Ortiz Jr.’s aggressive riding style. I kept him off my ballot last year, in large part because of a particularly egregious incident that occurred while the ballots were in hand, and I thought hard about doing it again this year.
The thing is, until someone in a position of authority does something to correct the behavior, he’s not technically doing anything illegal when he takes race riding to its fringe. And while he’s doing it, he’s winning tons of races, both in the rank-and-file and graded stakes levels. For better or worse, there was no jockey better qualified to put Flightline through hell aboard Life Is Good in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and he sure tried.
I shudder to think what it’ll take to rein in the deep-stretch paint-swapping on a regulatory level, but until that happens, I don’t really know what to do with Irad other than put him on top. If it’s good enough for the stewards, it’s good enough for me.
Outstanding Apprentice Jockey
Question: Is it better to be the 10th-best jockey in New York or the ace of a smaller circuit?
- Jose Antonio Gomez
- Jeiron Barbosa
- Vicente Del-Cid
It’s impossible to vote on this category based only on the numbers.
On paper, Vicente Del-Cid looks like an absolute world-beater. His 246 wins were well ahead of next-closest Jeiron Barbosa, and he was a top-three earner. When you dig into his resume, you see he’s got meet titles at Delta Downs and Evangeline Downs, and he rides almost exclusively on Louisiana’s local year-round circuit.
Barbosa was a two-time meet leader at Laurel Park, and he even notched a graded stakes placing in the G2 Delaware Handicap.
Then, you look at Jose Antonio Gomez, and he finished in the top 10 by wins in two Aqueduct meets and the Belmont at the Big A meet, 12th at Belmont Park in the spring, and 14th against arguably the strongest riding colony in the country at Saratoga Race Course.
That doesn’t even include the likes of Andy Hernandez, Marshall Mendez, Kylee Jordan, or Jean Alvelo, who all could have easily been finalists in a season lacking this many high-caliber apprentices. This was a deep field.
I ended up going with Gomez based on strength of schedule. There is no limit of world-class options on the New York circuit, even during the slower months, and to establish that kind of momentum against a deep jock’s room is an impressive feat.
I was also impressed by how well Gomez performed when he shipped out of state. He finished 15th during the Monmouth Park meet, and perhaps most impressively, he was 14th at Parx Racing, which is a year-long meet where he was never posted full-time. It’s hard to infiltrate the higher ranks ranks of those long meets, where a handful of top riders do most of the winning, so for him to do it essentially as a part-timer at Parx is worth noting.
Question: What do we do with Chad Brown?
- Todd Pletcher
- Bill Mott
- Charlie Appleby
The road to Eclipse Award glory just doesn’t go through the Saratoga Springs Courthouse.
I can hear the “hypocrite alarm” buzzing for some folks, so let me parse this out. When it comes to the Eclipse Awards, my decision to withhold a vote on behavioral grounds is typically restricted to racing-related transgressions, legal or otherwise. Did one’s actions happen on the racetrack or were they directly tied to it? Did one’s actions threaten horse racing’s social license to operate, or at the very least make us look really bad in the sphere outside of racing?
Brown pled guilty to a reduced charge of harassment, but the incident involved a fellow member of the backstretch, even if the incident didn’t occur on the track itself. If nothing else, it just made the sport look bad, having one of its top trainers in court during one of its top meets for violence against a woman, and I can’t reward or celebrate that.
Anyway, let’s focus on who actually got my votes.
Pletcher tallied 17 Grade 1 victories last year, including both parts of the exacta in the Belmont Stakes. He won Breeders’ Cup races with Malathaat and Forte, both of whom will likely win Eclipse Awards. Nest will likely grab an Eclipse Award herself, and Life Is Good was the second-best older male in training. It was hard to find a division where he didn’t have at least one horse of the Grade 1 level, and that’s what an Eclipse Award-level trainer needs to do.
Special mention to Charlie Appleby, who didn’t have nearly enough starts to merit actually winning the award, but always made an impact, winning eight of 17 and finishing in the top three in 14 of those starts. His charges were impossible to leave off tickets.
Horse of the Year
Question: Are we really going to give the gold trophy to a horse with just three starts on the year?
- Life Is Good
I wish Flightline had run even one more time in 2022. I’m not in love with the precedent it sets putting a horse managed so delicately on top, and even one more start would have made me feel better about it (yes, safety of the horse is paramount, and a horse shouldn’t be run if he’s not good to go. There are a lot of things I feel conflicted about here). I don’t think we’re going to see a Horse of the Year-winning campaign exactly like Flightline’s next year, or perhaps in the next few years, but it feels like a glimpse at the future of highest-end racing, and I’m not a huge fan of it.
Like everyone else last year, I tried to find a horse to beat Flightline and failed. Unless you think Modern Games’ two domestic starts are greater than Flightline’s three, Flightline demolished any colt, horse, or gelding that lined up against him. Malathaat is the obvious choice among the fillies and mares, but the only metric where I felt she outshined Flightline was by number of starts. I don’t fault any voters who put Malathaat on top if their personal criteria for Horse of the Year includes a minimum number of starts, but I just couldn’t pull that lever myself.
Life Is Good gets a seat at the big table for a worthy, steady campaign and for being the only horse with the internal fortitude and connections bold enough to try and push Flightline all the way around the track when no other horse could or would. Unfortunately, when you play the game and lose, there is going to be some fallout, and the off-the-board finish gave Malathaat a split hair’s advantage when it came to overall consistency.
Flightline was inevitable, even if he was also occasional.