Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
Last year, I had the honor of presenting the Eclipse Awards for outstanding apprentice jockey and outstanding jockey to Drayden VanDyke and Javier Castellano, respectively. It was my first time at the awards show, and it seemed like we had been treated to a pretty spectacular year of racing. My-oh-my, can a lot change in a year!
This year, the entire Eclipse Awards seemed to be affected by the presence of one particular horse. American Pharoah’s Triple Crown victory and subsequent Grand Slam in the Breeders’ Cup Classic was nothing short of spectacular. His story was reflected in the nominations of all of his human connections for the various awards, as well as in the NTRA Moment of the Year, which was announced to be this year’s Belmont Stakes – won, of course, by that same American Pharoah.
Last night, American Pharoah was named 2015 Horse of the Year, and was only the second unanimous winner, with John Henry being the first in 1981. While he is given this title for one particular year of achievements, the phrase “horse of a lifetime” being applied to him really is fitting. In terms of being a racing fan, we hit the jackpot when it came to 2015. Many, myself included, had begun to think that there never would be another Triple Crown winner again. And then along came a talented bay colt with a misspelled name to end the draught.
On Friday morning before the Eclipse Awards, I was lucky enough to emcee the ThoroFan Awards Brunch at Frankey’s Sports Bar in Gulfstream Park. ThoroFan is a great organization that I connected with last year, and their mission is to give a voice to the racing fans.
This brunch was where the NTRA Moment of the Year was first announced, but it was also where legendary race caller and last year’s Eclipse Award of Merit winner Tom Durkin was recognized, and where American Pharoah’s trainer Bob Baffert was given yet another award. This particular award, however, was slightly different than some of the others he had been given along his journey with American Pharoah. ThoroFan decided to recognize Baffert for his commitment to Thoroughbred aftercare and the work that he has done to provide for our equine athletes after their days on the racetrack are over. Some of the horses that he trained, including Silver Charm, War Emblem and Game on Dude, now reside at the Thoroughbred retirement facility Old Friends in Georgetown, Ky.
BAFFERT TALKING AT THE THOROFAN EVENT
“A good horse is like a good song,” Baffert said at the brunch after accepting the award, admitting that he got teary eyed when he saw Silver Charm, the 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, who was also second in the Belmont Stakes. “It just sticks with you.”
Baffert described American Pharoah as “a gift from God,” and as he and members of the Zayat family ascended the Eclipse Awards stage over and over again on Saturday night, it became more and more apparent how one horse has changed not only those directly affected by him, but all of us. He has altered and created history.
At the ThoroFan Awards Brunch, Tom Durkin said it was because he decided to retire this year that American Pharoah went on to win the Triple Crown. Eleven near misses in his career calling races, and his first year not in the booth for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont brought the same winner of all three. In light of this, I, along with many other race fans, would like to personally thank Tom Durkin for retiring this year.
I’ve said many times that, even though our champion is retired, that does not mean that racing will now be devoid of stories and excitement. Champion mare Beholder, crowned Eclipse Award winner for older dirt female, is supposed to return to the racetrack in 2016. Nyquist and Songbird, champion two-year-old male and filly, respectively, have big careers ahead of them. And let’s not forget about the Kentucky Derby trail. The countdown has begun to the first Saturday in May. I’m calling it right now – when a horse crosses the finish line at Churchill Downs this year and enters the history books, the chills will be just as great as any year.
I call the Eclipse Awards the Academy Awards of horse racing. It’s another excuse for a good party or three, and it’s a great chance to reunite with friends from all over the world, and to make new friends. In racing, we are all immediately bound by our love and passion for this sport, and that is a beautiful thing. More than anything, however, the Eclipse Awards is a celebration and recognition of the accomplishments of horses and humans who make it all possible.
WITH FRIENDS BEFORE THE ECLIPSE AWARDS
A huge congratulations to all of the Eclipse Awards finalists and winners on a fantastic year of racing.