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Powell: A vote for Baffert and other Eclipse Award thoughts

By Dick Powell

With over two full days to spare, I submitted my 2018 Eclipse Awards ballot. That is an upset in itself. The last Grade 1 stakes race of the year was run on Saturday so there was no more reason to wait, and this year’s late season stakes races did have an impact on one of my choices.

The rule with the Eclipse Awards voting is that there is no rule. This year, I was a tough marker on international horses that only had one start in North America. As someone who follows racing around the world, I feel that horses that race here have a big preference. Is ENABLE the best turf horse in the world? Of course, she is. But with only one start here, how can I deny the many other deserving turf horses that toiled over here all year?

With few exceptions, I do not look at the Eclipse Awards as a handicapping exercise but one of accomplishment in 2018. If these horses were in a race in their division, I might not bet the one that I selected but gave my vote to the one that, in my humble opinion, accomplished the most. Also, these are my votes and not who I think will win. Most of them are logical and there will be many Mariano Rivera’s in this year balloting. Some are not.

The main topic of discussion has been Horse of the Year and I have already written why I think that Triple Crown winner JUSTIFY deserves the Eclipse Award over Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) winner ACCELERATE. The debate fueled much constructive dialogue and even unearthed a fact that I forgot about.

In 1977, Seattle Slew became the first horse to win the Triple Crown while undefeated. He lost his next start by over 16 lengths while finishing out of the money and was done for the year. Still, he was voted Horse of the Year over the mighty Forego who won the Metropolitan H. (G1) and Woodward (G1) and carried impossible weights in the races he lost. The Triple Crown achievement trumps all.

What I forgot, but was pointed out by Sid Fernando in his column in Thoroughbred Daily News, was that Slew himself was victimized the very next year by 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed — despite beating him twice. I wouldn’t vote for a Triple Crown winner automatically as Horse of the Year, but it would have to be a pretty special situation to not do so. Unfortunately, I did not have a vote back in 1978 and didn’t have to decide between two all-time greats. My heart says I would have voted for Slew as he beat Affirmed decisively both times he faced him.

The toughest race for me was for trainer. Bob Baffert trained Justify and had a great year in other divisions. But, as I have pointed out before, Lucien Laurin did not win it in 1973 when Secretariat won the Triple Crown and Billy Turner was denied in 1977 as well. So, it’s not a slam dunk by any means.

Chad Brown had an incredible year, capped off by COMPETITIONOFIDEAS‘ win in the American Oaks (G1) last Saturday at Santa Anita. It was Brown’s 17th individual Grade 1 stakes winner this year, but Baffert kept winning Grade 1s to the end of the year when MCKINZIE bounced back to win the Malibu (G1) giving him another. Any other year I vote for Brown, but what Baffert did with Justify was history making. Not only did he win the Kentucky Derby (G1) with a horse that did not begin his career until February 18, but nursed him through the rigors of the Triple Crown. What happened after the Belmont Stakes (G1) is irrelevant and should not reflect on Baffert.

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