The race for the Eclipse Award as the champion older dirt male has turned into a “Classic” debate.
In one corner, there’s Bill and Corinne Heiligbrodt’s Mitole, the odds-on choice to be named the champion sprinter. He won six of seven 2019 starts for trainer Steve Asmussen, with victories in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint and the $1.2 million Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap at a mile among his four Grade 1 wins.
“Mitole has been pretty phenomenal. He lost one race and his record speaks for itself. He’s a very special dirt horse. He did it with class. He’s a one-of-a-kind horse. Probably the best dirt horse I’ll ever own,” Bill Heiligbrodt said. “He’s a classic dirt horse.”
Then there’s Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable’s Vino Rosso, who won the $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic by a convincing 4 1/4-length margin. He has an avid supporter in owner Mike Repole, who says his 4-year-old colt is the right choice in an “unfair” category.
“I don’t think the setup for the older dirt male is in the spirit of the rules,” Repole said. “No horse should be able to win two awards unless one is Horse of the Year. I don’t think it’s fair and I don’t think it was meant to be that way. Hopefully, the voters will see it that way and reward Vino Rosso.”
Repole’s belief that the criteria for the champion older male is flawed comes four years after the categories for older male and female were redesigned because of a stretch from 2009-’14, when on four occasions the champion turf male was also voted the champion older male. In response, the categories for older males and females were changed by the Eclipse Awards’ three controlling bodies — the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, and Daily Racing Form — to become awards for the outstanding older male and female on dirt or the main track at all distances.
Now, in light of this year’s events, Repole claims there’s a similar situation between two horses who will begin life as stallions at Spendthrift Farm next year. Just as turf horses have their own category to earn an Eclipse Award, there’s an award for the champion sprinter, while older route horses, who run in some of the sport’s most famous races, lack their own category.
“After Vino Rosso won the Classic, I assumed if you have two dirt awards, one would be for horses at a mile or less, which is the sprint award, and the other, the older dirt male, would be for horses at more than a mile. Then I read a story and found out I was wrong,” Repole said. “That’s not how it should be. Mitole is an amazing, brilliant, magnificent horse. To win at six and seven furlongs like he did, you’re doing something very few horses can do, and if you are winning championship-caliber races at a mile-and-a-sixteenth or more it’s something very few horses can do. So allowing one horse to get two awards and another none doesn’t make sense.”
Repole also contends that regardless of the way the award is structured, Vino Rosso deserves it. Though the son of Curlin won three of six starts in 2019, Vino Rosso’s wins include the Classic by a decisive margin, and the Gold Cup at Santa Anita Stakes, both Grade 1 races at 1 1/4 miles. He also finished a nose ahead of Runhappy Travers Stakes winner Code of Honor in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup but was disqualified and placed second.
“I know if Mitole faced Vino Rosso at six furlongs, he’d beat him by five lengths. It wouldn’t be close. But I am also super confident, with no disrespect to the brilliance of Mitole, that if Mitole was in the Classic, he would have lost by 15 lengths,” Repole said. “There’s a reason why the Classic is on prime-time television on NBC and the Mitole race was on somewhere during the day at NBCSN. The Classic is a $6 million race. It’s the bigger race. You have to give ‘Vino’ credit [for winning] a race which was worth more than all of the races Mitole was in [$5,238,000].”
Todd Pletcher, who trained Vino Rosso, also believes a Classic victory should resonate with Eclipse voters.
“To me, the award means the older dirt horse at a distance, but with the sprint category it gets confusing and some voters may not differentiate between the two. I think based on Vino Rosso’s two Grade 1 wins and the Classic being the preeminent dirt race in the country, and maybe the world, that should carry some extra consideration,” Pletcher said. “I hope voters will realize there’s a category for sprinters and not route horses, and hopefully they consider ‘Vino.’ ”
Meanwhile, Heiligbrodt sees Mitole as a worthy winner of the sprinter and older male awards and a legitimate Horse of the Year candidate, especially after the Eskendereya colt showed an unusual dimension for a sprinter by winning the Met Mile over McKinzie, who was also second in the Classic, and Thunder Snow, a two-time winner of the Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline.
“He’s my Horse of the Year,” he said. “I’ve owned thousands of horses and I’ve never seen one like him, and I don’t think you’ll see another like him that fast and that sound.”
Keith Chamblin, COO of the NTRA, said the changes to the male and female older runner category were the result of a trend and admits there was little thought at the time that a sprinter could win two awards. Since the launch of the Eclipse Awards in 1971, the only horses to win both the older male and sprinter awards in the same year were Forego, the three-time Horse of the Year best known for his wins in Grade 1 route stakes, in 1974 and Ack Ack in 1971.
“Things change and things evolve. I can see if Mitole were to win and something like this was to become a trend, it’s something we might consider changing. But to this point it’s all hypothetical,” Chamblin said. “It’s not something that’s been raised in the Eclipse committee or presented by an outsider. If it had, we would have discussed it. Whether we would have made a change, who knows, but it would certainly have been discussed.”
If the category does change down the road, Repole knows what he will call it.
“I could see us losing and the rules get changed next year, making it the Vino Rosso Rule,” he said, “but more for the horse than me, I’d like to see him get an Eclipse Award.”