A celebration of the undefeated Flightline awaits when racing’s best horses and human participants of 2022 are honored at a sold-out Eclipse Awards dinner Jan. 26 at the Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla.
While there’s little doubt that Flightline, already named the Longines World’s Best Racehorse, will secure Horse of the Year and older dirt male Eclipse Awards at this year’s ceremony, there are a number of equine categories where the outcome is murkier and the connections involved will be nervous until the announcement. Let’s look at three equine divisions that are expected to be tight.
With three different winners of the Triple Crown races, this category figured to be a close one. How strange is this division this year? The Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve winner, Rich Strike, is not even a finalist.
The three finalists are Runhappy Travers Stakes winner Epicenter, FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Mile Presented by PDJF winner Modern Games, and multiple Grade 1 winner Taiba. This award typically has gone to a dirt runner and I think that will be the case here, but I do think Modern Games is in line for a championship in the turf male division.
Epicenter finished second in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, while winning big races before and after the Triple Crown, respectively, the Grade 2 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby and Grade 1 Travers. Taiba earned a division-leading three Grade 1 wins in 2022 and his third-place effort in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic was the best of any 3-year-old but he did not place in any of the Triple Crown races.
My vote: In Eclipse voting, only the first-place votes count toward the determination of the winner. My vote went to Epicenter as I thought his two runner-up finishes amounted to the best performance in the Triple Crown races and his victory in the Travers impressed.
For the record, my second-place vote went to Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets winner Mo Donegal, who also defeated Preakness winner Early Voting in the Wood Memorial Presented by Resorts World Casino. When Taiba won the Grade 1 Runhappy Malibu Stakes to close out the year, I moved him ahead of Rich Strike for third. While it’s impressive that Taiba won three Grade 1 races, two of those races were not especially deep fields.
Who I think will win: I think the voters will see it this way and Epicenter will prevail. In trying to guess how this vote will go, it should be noted that some voters may frown on selecting a horse trained by Bob Baffert in a year he was suspended 90 days by Kentucky stewards over Medina Spirit ‘s failed drug test after the 2021 Derby. I did not base my vote on this, but it could be a factor.
I suspect this will be the closest vote in the equine division. As Byron King pointed out in November, Epicenter was ranked seventh in the final National Thoroughbred Racing Association poll for 2022 while Taiba was ranked eighth. Bottom line: Pay attention when the envelope is opened for this award.
For many voters in this category, a key question will be how they define a sprinter. Juddmonte’s Elite Power closed out 2022 with five straight victories, including a clear score in the six-furlong Qatar Racing Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Bill Mott stablemate Cody’s Wish won the two-turn Big Ass Fans Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and won three stakes races going around one turn, including two races at a mile as well as the seven-furlong Forego Stakes. Jackie’s Warrior, the champion in this division in 2021, posted four more graded stakes wins in 2022 including the six-furlong Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap.
My vote: All three of these horses had strong credentials but the victory at seven furlongs in the Forego by Cody’s Wish, where he defeated Jackie’s Warrior by 1 1/4 lengths, registered with me. He followed with a win over Cyberknife in the two-turn Breeders’ Cup Mile. While that race may be viewed as out of this division, it certainly showed the class of Godolphin homebred Cody’s Wish. That combination of a big win sprinting in the Forego and classy consistency throughout the year was enough for me, but I certainly can understand voters who opted for either of the other two finalists.
Who I think will win: The easy thing to say is that Bill Mott will win, as he trains Elite Power and Cody’s Wish. As both of those horses scored big wins over Jackie’s Warrior, who finished third in the Sprint, I think it will be one of the two. I suspect the voters again will agree with me and go with Cody’s Wish and his five stakes wins (three at one turn).
Oftentimes this division sees voters choose between an accomplished North American-trained runner, or runners, and an international horse who secures a Breeders’ Cup victory in a single North American start. That was the case in 2021 when Loves Only You got the nod off her historic win for Japan in the Maker’s Mark Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf.
This year there are no international runners among the three finalists for the award. Instead, voters very likely chose between a pair of United States-based runners who placed behind top international runners in Breeders’ Cup races. Peter Brant’s In Italian won Grade 1 races at Saratoga Race Course and Keeneland then led into deep stretch in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, where she grudgingly gave way to Tuesday and held second. George Krikorian’s War Like Goddess defeated males in the Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Stakes at the Belmont at the Big A meeting and then finished third, again against males, in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf behind international runners Rebel’s Romance and Stone Age. The third finalist is Brant’s Regal Glory, who won a pair of Grade 1 races in the spring.
My vote: I went back and forth but War Like Goddess’ distance abilities and win over males carried the day.
Who I think will win: In Italian also is a terrific selection. Perhaps In Italian prevails here with her two Grade 1 wins compared with the one for War Like Goddess.