The Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Del Mar last Saturday, besides providing countless memorable moments and fantastic races, went a long way toward deciding the winners of the Eclipse Awards. First held in 1971, the Eclipse Awards are racing’s year-end awards, given out to the champions of each major division. Voting will soon get underway, and the winners will be revealed on Feb. 10 at Santa Anita Park.
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There’s little doubt about most of the winners. Knicks Go stamped himself as champion older male and Horse of the Year with a dominant Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic win. Letruska, despite a disappointing performance in the Longines Distaff, did enough earlier in the year to clinch the award for champion older female. The respective Juvenile race winners, Corniche and Echo Zulu, also will be crowned Eclipse Award champions.
Perhaps the most interesting division with some doubt is one of the most glamorous: the 3-year-old male division. All the major 3-year-olds in the Classic were defeated, leaving the outcome of the Eclipse voting in doubt. Let’s take a look at the major contenders for the award.
Heading into the Classic, just about everyone considered Essential Quality the division leader. He won five graded stakes on the year, including the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets and the Runhappy Travers Stakes. He became the sixth horse in the last 30 years to win both races. He also won the Southwest Stakes, the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, and the Jim Dandy Stakes.
Backers of Essential Quality will point to those races as the center of his case. No 3-year-old won as many graded stakes, and the Belmont-Travers double is certainly a rare and prestigious feat. Last year, he won the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and was voted champion 2-year-old male. Although his races last year do not have any direct bearing on his credentials this year, his impressive 2-year-old campaign will perhaps be on the minds of voters.
The problem with Essential Quality’s case is that he lost the two most important races of his season. As the favorite in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, he was flat in the stretch and finished fourth. He was once again favored in the Classic but finished third, beaten 3 ½ lengths by Knicks Go. Those defeats will certainly be held against him in the voting. If he couldn’t deliver on the biggest stages, some voters will think, how could he be considered the best 3-year-old?
He won the biggest 3-year-old race of them all, winning the Kentucky Derby by a half-length in gate-to-wire style. After a third-place finish in the Preakness Stakes, he went to the sidelines for several months. He returned with victories in the Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar and the Awesome Again Stakes, then finished second in the Classic.
Medina Spirit has a few advantages in the Eclipse Award race compared with Essential Quality. He beat older horses in the Grade 1 Awesome Again, which Essential Quality never did. He also finished ahead of him twice, in the Derby and in the Classic. If you based your vote strictly on head-to-head records, Medina Spirit would be your choice. And, of course, he crossed the finish line first in the biggest race for his division.
However, the Derby might end up costing him some votes. A few days after the Derby, it was announced that Medina Spirit tested positive for betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory steroid that can only be used therapeutically in Kentucky, and requires a two-week withdrawal time. As such, his Derby win remains in legal limbo. This situation may cause him to lose favor with some voters and could lead to them voting for Essential Quality over him.
While Essential Quality and Medina Spirit are the clear favorites for the Eclipse, a new name entered the conversation after Breeders’ Cup weekend.
On the early part of the Derby trail, Life Is Good was the consensus top prospect. He won the Sham Stakes over Medina Spirit, then soundly defeated him by eight lengths in the San Felipe Stakes. A few weeks after that race, Life Is Good was diagnosed with an ankle chip and missed the Triple Crown series. He was a hard-fought second in the H. Allen Jerkens Stakes behind Jackie’s Warrior, then won the Grade 2 Kelso Handicap against older horses as the overwhelming favorite.
Life Is Good asserted his dominance in the Big Ass Fans Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. As the 7-10 favorite, he led every step of the way for an impressive 5 ¾-length win. That performance earned a 109 Beyer Speed Figure and a 120 mark on the Equibase scale.
While Life Is Good might be the most talented member of his crop, his credentials aren't as good as those of Essential Quality or Medina Spirit. He’s won just one Grade 1 race on the year, in contrast to the two won by Medina Spirit and the three won by Essential Quality. In fact, the field Medina Spirit beat in the Awesome Again was probably as tough, if not tougher, than the one Life Is Good defeated in the Dirt Mile.
It’s possible Life Is Good further establishes himself as a dominant force next year, but his resume this season does not stack up with the others.
Essential Quality and Medina Spirit loom as the major players in the Eclipse Awards race. Neither one will race again this year, but their credentials will surely be debated further for the next three months before the Eclipse Awards votes are revealed.