Eclipse Awards Diaries: A Championship Evening

The Life

Eclipse Awards day is one of my favorite days of the year – not only is there the excitement of the ceremony in the evening, but there’s also a great day of racing for fans, press and honorees alike. Plus, you never know who you’re going to see: there are always stars and racing luminaries around all day and into the night, so the people watching is almost as much fun as the racing!

Gulfstream Park kicked off the festivities with the Sunshine Millions, which are six stakes races (the toughest level of competition for horses) restricted to Thoroughbreds bred in the state of Florida. The first of the Sunshine Millions tests was the Distaff, a competition for female horses. After running a mile and an eighth, it was Sweet N Discreet who took home the winner’s share of the $300,000 purse with her first victory of 2014. 

Up next was the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf, and today was Parranda’s day as she won with ease with Jose Lezcano aboard for owner Lone Stable and trainer Rodolfo Garcia.

The third race in the Sunshine Millions was the Filly and Mare Sprint, and there were six female horses lined up to duke it out for the $150,000 purse. In the end it was Ullapool who scored the victory, again with jockey Jose Lezcano aboard. 

Next was the Sunshine Millions Turf, which attracted a field of 10 to battle over a mile and an eighth on the grass. I always love watching big fields like this on the lawn; the opening charge down the stretch is a total thrill.

As the horses hit the finish line, it was Star Channel who fended off Old Time Hockey by a nose to take home the prize money. It was a very close race and even ended with an inquiry (which is when there’s a claim of foul by the stewards – aka the track judges.) In the end, it was decided that Star Channel had done no wrong and he was declared the official winner of the Sunshine Millions Turf. 

The Sprint was the next race on the program, and this contest was much less dramatic (but no less exciting): favorite Ribo Bobo won with daylight between him and the next horse, romping to the wire and making it look easy.

The Sunshine Millions Classic was the crown of the afternoon, and with good reason: the race was the first start of 2014 for Breeders’ Cup Classic hero Mucho Macho Man, and there was a huge crowd gathered at Gulfstream to witness his return to the racetrack. People were crowded around the paddock, and when the Champ emerged from the saddling area into the open air cheers rose and cameraphones snapped photos as people welcomed him back to the races.

While he paraded around in the paddock, Mucho Macho Man and jockey Gary Stevens were hyper-focused on the task in front of them.

And as the horses headed onto the Gulfstream dirt, fans moved with them, crowding to the rails to catch the best view of the Thoroughbreds as they headed to the starting gate for the Sunshine Millions Classic.

Finally it was time for the big race; and when the horses left the starting gate, the crowd roared as Mucho Macho Man surged onto the track alongside his competition.

As the horses began the turn for home, Mucho Macho Man swung to the lead with no urging from Gary Stevens, and from there the race was over: Mucho Macho Man got in front and never looked back, winning the Classic by an astounding 14 lengths.

When Mucho Macho Man and Gary got back after the race, they were greeted by trainer Kathy Ritvo. I love this photo I got of the three of them in the Winner’s Circle; horse and humans alike were clearly so proud of themselves, as well they should be! Mucho’s even shooting me a look as if to make sure that I was getting his best angle.

As soon as the race was over, it was time for me to boogie back up to the press box to get ready for the Eclipse Awards. And man, did I have to hurry: I had about a half hour to upload all of my photos as well as to transform myself from a slightly dirty, Chucks-wearing photographer into a cocktail-appropriate, lipsticked actual human being. Needless to say, I had to monopolize the powder room in the press box for much longer than was probably warranted and I’m sure that I wasn’t the most popular media member by a longshot during that time. To my fellow photogs and journos, I’m sorry! But it was an emergency - I was kinda smelly.

As soon as I felt like I resembled an actual female human fit to be seen in public, I headed down to the red carpet to start interviewing people celebrating the Eclipse Awards. It was totally fun and there was some breathtaking fashion on display – check out the video below to get a flavor of the scene!

The room where the Eclipse Awards is absolutely beautiful, and it was packed to the gills with horse racing royalty.

HRTV’s Christina Blacker was looking stunning in a gorgeous black lace evening dress:

And sports radio star Jim Rome and his wife Janet were looking incredibly dapper as well:

Before I knew it, it was time for the ceremony to begin. We were alerted to this fact by four buglers playing the “Call to Post,” which was a pretty attention-grabbing way to get the party officially started! 

Larry Collmus, track announcer extraordinaire was there to be the “Voice of God” – i.e. the off-stage announcer.

By the way, that’s actually the technical term for that job; it’s on the official TV rundowns and everything as “V.O.G.”

Anyway, Larry was hilarious as always and laid out the ground rules for Eclipse Awards finalists – where they should go to get on stage if they won and how much time they had for their acceptance speeches. After that, it was time for the awards to kick off!

Our host for the evening was Jeannine Edwards, and she was absolutely amazing. Her opening remarks were so honest and poignant, and she made a point to honor all horses, champion and everyday runners alike. I was so impressed by her obvious love and commitment to the horses at the center of our sport, and I hope we are lucky enough to have her host the Awards every year.

The first prize of the night was for Female Turf Horse, and the honor went to Dank, the international sensation who ran twice on American grass in 2013, winning both the Beverly D at Arlington Park and the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita. Her owner James Wigan was on hand to accept his Eclipse Award and seemed overwhelmed by the reception his British-bred mare received here across the pond.

Up next was the Male Turf award, and to my delight it went to Wise Dan! For those of you new to this blog, be forewarned: I am deeply and shamelessly in love with this horse, and to have him nab this award for the second year in a row was a total delight. Plus, his owners Mr. and Mrs. Fink are absolutely adorable and I secretly sometimes pretend that they’re my grandparents which is probably a really creepy thing that I shouldn’t admit on the Internet.

Top Steeplechase Horse was announced next, and that went to Divine Fortune. His owner/trainer/breeder Jonathan Sheppard accepted his award with dignity – he is truly an old-school horseman, so it was wonderful to see him get this recognition.

2013’s Champion Owners were up next, and the prize went to Ken and Sarah Ramsey. The couple would later be awarded the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Breeder, and as they collected their prizes it was moving to see the love that exists between this couple - they couldn’t stop smiling at each other.

Mucho Macho Man’s Breeders’ Cup Classic win was honored next as the NTRA Moment of the Year. His Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens accepted the award and made a moving speech about the importance of horses in all of our lives. I was so happy to see Team Mucho Macho Man get this honor: their story is so unbelievable and besides: anything that brings the Village People back to relevance is A-OK in my book.

The 2013 Outstanding Older Female Award was the next given out, and once again Royal Delta was named Champion. Her owner Benjamin Leon accepted the award, and I think I can speak for most horse racing fans out there when I say that we are so grateful that he let us enjoy his mare last year.

Older Male was up next, and once again Wise Dan took the statue – yay, in-my-head grandparents! This time the Finks let trainer Charlie LoPresti accept the award, and he was his typical self: he gave credit to the horse and his team, and seemed genuinely moved that Wise Dan had taken this award home for the second year in a row and was completely humble and self-effacing. Charlie is good people, and I wish him so much continued success.

As the Eclipse Awards continued, it seemed as though the voters this year were totally in sync with me: all of the horses I love seemed to be getting top honors! Because, what do you know, but the next award for Champion Female Sprinter went to Groupie Doll! This mare is one of my very favorite horses to watch, and her trainer Buff Bradley is a wonderful person and an incredible trainer. When he accepted the award, he was almost moved to tears, and I think I wasn’t the only person in the audience that was attacked by invisible onion-cutting ninjas at that moment. Thank goodness there were cocktail napkins at hand!

Then Champion Sprinter was named: it was Points Offthebench, a very talented runner who unfortunately lost his life to a training accident just before the Breeders’ Cup. This was the most bittersweet moment of the night, because while it felt so right to honor this horse’s accomplishments, we as a sport are still reeling from his loss.

A lovely moment in the evening was when the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance was honored with a special Eclipse Award for their efforts to retrain and rehome retired racehorses. Anna Ford of New Vocations gave a wonderful speech on behalf of rescue networks nationwide, and I hope everyone can take a moment sometime soon and learn more about these wonderful organizations.

Todd Pletcher took home an unprecedented sixth Outstanding Trainer title this year, and his speech was incredibly moving. He began by talking about the courageous Caxia Electronica, one of his trainees who lost his life in a horrific and freakish training accident earlier this month. His rider, who was aboard Caxia Electronica during the incident, credits the horse for saving his life in the accident. Pletcher went on to recognize his staff and family for their tireless support in one of the biggest displays of emotion I’ve ever seen from him.

OK, one of my favorite moments of the evening happened next: Mr. Willis Horton, owner of Will Take Charge, accepted the Champion Three-Year-Old award on behalf of his horse, and the man was freaking spectacular. He started out with a shout-out to all of the rednecks (his words, not mine!) in his home state of Arkansas, then refused to be played off of the stage when his speech exceeded the time limit and just generally was awesome. He was hilarious and passionate and just so happy to be here. This was my (and most of the Internet’s) reaction:

He was really that much fun! You can see presenter Laffit Pincay, III (left) cracking up behind him in the photo below:

The award for Champion Three-Year-Old filly was up next, and this was one of the more hotly debated awards of the night. In the end, it was California’s Beholder that stole the show, and trainer Richard Mandella accepted the award with pride.

Up next was one of the most exciting Eclipse Awards: Champion Two-Year-Old Male. Whoever wins this award is generally the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby, so it’s always a thrill to see who gets the title.  This year it was Shared Belief, and owner (and sports radio personality) Jim Rome was there to pick up his statue. For a man who was vocally anti-horse racing just a few years ago, he’s come a long way! He credited his wife Janet for talking him into giving the sport a try, and said that he’s fallen in love with the game ever since then.

Champion Two-Year-Old Filly was up next, and this one was another close call. Would it be Ria Antonia, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Filles by DQ? Or She’s a Tiger, the horse that technically won that race but was taken down for interference? In the end it was the latter, and her team was clearly over-the-top happy about the win.

This year’s Eclipse Award of Merit went to trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who earned the evening’s only standing ovation as he went to the stage to collect his award. Known as “The Coach,” Lukas has developed not just champion horses, but he’s brought along champion trainers under his tutelage as well. This man is such a prolific winner that he was congratulated by the legendary Bobby Knight via video:

Yep, D. Wayne Lukas is the man: in fact, he ended his speech by warning the young trainers out there to watch their backs – he’s gunning for them!

Outstanding Jockey was the next prize up for grabs, and I was so happy to see Javier Castellano get the award. He’s a genuinely good guy, and he’s one heck of a rider. A total class act, Javi took the time to recognize his fellow nominees as well as thank his great friends and mentors John Velazquez and Ramon Dominguez, both of whom suffered seriously injuries on the job in 2013.

Finally, it was time for the big finale: the Horse of the Year announcement. This year’s finalists were Mucho Macho Man, Will Take Charge and Wise Dan. Again, I’m a huge Dan fan, so I had my fingers crossed for him … and I wasn’t disappointed! For the second year in a row, Wise Dan swept every single category he was nominated for, including Horse of the Year. His owners the Finks and trainer Charlie LoPresti were so happy, and I was blinking back tears of happiness as they accepted the golden trophy.

After the Eclipse Awards ceremony was over, the party was just heating up. The stage was cleared, an awesome salsa band started playing, and revelers hit the dance floor to celebrate the evening’s winners.

Thank you so much for stopping by to experience the Eclipse Awards with me, and I’ll be back soon with more adventures in horse racing! What did you think of the Eclipse Awards? Let me know in the comments what your favorite (or least favorite!) moment of the evening was.

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