Saturday, December 26, 2009

Horses of the Decade Part II: The Boys

After looking at the gals in Part I, we're turning to the boys in Part II. Because the discussion for the 3 year old colts is fairly length, we're going to break it up into two pieces. In the next post we'll get to the male turf horse and sprint horse, and have some other side awards, Bill Simmons-style.

2yo colt

Let's dispense with the easy ones. Action This Day (2003) is in the running for worst horse to win an Eclipse Award (we may do a small bit on that later on) with exactly one good win to his credit, the BC Juvenile. Declan's Moon (2004) was a nice horse that won by default when a bomb won the Juvenile. Macho Uno (2000), Stevie Wonderboy (2005), Street Sense (2006) and Midshipman (2008) were all fine specimens of horseflesh--this group includes a Kentucky Derby winner--but basically won the Eclipse award solely because they won the Juvenile. That's fine and good, but knocks them out of the running for something grander. So let's look at the four remaining contenders.

Johannesburg (2001). Went 7-for-7 as a 2 year old, which included four Grade 1 wins, 3 in Europe and one in the BC Juvenile. There's little to find fault with here, except to note that the Juvenile was his only route race and his only dirt race, and in that, his chief contenders (Officer, Siphonizer) threw in clunkers on either a dead rail or an off day.

Vindication (2002). 4-for-4 in his 2yo campaign, he had a visually impressive win in the Kentucky Juvenile and then won the Breeders Cup Juvenile in somewhat impressive fashion. Somewhat. Compromising the accolades for his win was that his chief contender (Sky Mesa) was an early scratch and his top competitor (Hold That Tiger) broke poorly and had a ride from hell. We're impressed but not bowled over.

War Pass (2007). The fastest of all the 2yos this decade, he was 4-for-4 and popped off a speed figure over 110 in his BC Juvenile win. The caveats are that his Juvenile win came in the slop, where other horses may not have fired their best shot and that he was never really challenged early in any of his races (he was a speedball).

Lookin at Lucky (2009). Won three Grade 1's and was a very, very unfortunate 2nd in the BC Juvenile to Vale of York. We like that this horse won stakes races at a bunch of different distances and stretched out from a sprint to a route with no difficulty. We also like that after running in the Juvenile he came back and won another stakes race in December; the number of horses that have just packed it in after October/November are innumerable. He's a bit of a throwback to the horses in the 90's (Favorite Trick, Real Quiet) who ran actual lengthy campaigns as juveniles. We don't like that he never ran on a dirt track, but it's not his fault that California mandated that all dirt tracks be converted to synthetics.

To us, it comes down to how much credit you give Johannesburg for his overseas sprint wins and a goofy BC Juvy win versus Lookin at Lucky's dominance over a synthetic surface. We give Johannesburg a lot of credit for his overseas exploits, but note that winning a bunch of turf sprints as a two year old is a far cry from the success Euros have in older races with stiff competition; it's easier to duck or miss big horses when you're a Juvenile. By contrast, this year's champion took on all the best horses in the States, was repeatedly successful in route races and was clearly the best horse of his class. We're not sure that was the case with Johannesburg, who may have just been the best in on BC day when only one other horse (Repent) fired.

Eclipse Ballot: 1. Lookin at Lucky; 2. Johannesburg; 3. War Pass.

3yo colt

We remind everyone that for this group we're only looking at a horse's 3 year old campaign, which means all those that want to argue that it has to be either Curlin or it for Horse of the Decade debates. This is actually a pretty fun group to analyze because there are six horses that won two legs of the Triple Crown, three other horses that won one leg plus the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and one horse that skipped the Triple Crown but won Horse of the Year. A countdown is in order.

10. Funny Cide (2003). His three-year-old season had three good races: a nice second in the Wood, a Derby win, and a Preakness romp. Honestly, his best race was probably losing the Wood where he showed good speed and guts. After that he won the Derby over an ailing Empire Maker (who he couldn't beat in the Wood), and beat only one horse of any consequence (Peace Rules) in the Preakness. By the end of the year, few really thought he was better than Empire Maker, who beat him again in the Belmont, and Funny Cide's 8-2-2-2 record for the year is unimpressive.

9. War Emblem (2002). One of the odder horses to contend for the Triple Crown, as he was all or nothing speedball. His 2002 season had 10 races with 5 wins (which included the Illinois and Kentucky Derbies, the Preakness and the Haskell), a 5th place finish, two 6th place finishes and two 8th place finishes. We can't help but think that he's only here because he caught a track bias on Derby Day and won a weak Preakness and Haskell. Had Medaglia d'Oro shown up for the first two legs of the Triple Crown or not succumbed to Volponi in the Breeders Cup Classic, he would have won this award.

8. Summer Bird (2009, presumably). A nothing before the Belmont, he subsequently rattled off wins in the Belmont, Travers and JCGC, before running an okay fourth in the BC Classic. A nice year, and we like him to have a big 4-year-old season.

7. Afleet Alex (2005). But for a horrible loss in the Derby, he would be our twelfth Triple Crown winner, as we previously discussed ad nauseum. Alas, not to be. Like the next two horses, he was fairly talented but we're punishing him a bit for calling it quits early in the year; would it have killed his owners to run him in the fall after he recovered from his minor injury or in 2006?

6. Smarty Jones (2004). We were never big fans of this guy, and still think his Derby was a fluke because of the torrential downpour twenty minutes before post time. Still, for 5 months he was tough to beat and his Belmont run was amazing for 11 furlongs. Also punished because he was retired early and because we lost the Pick Six thanks to his Belmont defeat.

5. Big Brown (2009). Boundless potential, great results except for the Belmont, intolerable connections. We won't belabor the points we made about 86 times last year.

4. Tiznow (2000). This class was a talented group--Tiznow, Giant's Causeway, Albert the Great, Captain Steve, El Corredor, and Aptitude were all very good horses. But the real story from that year was the hype around Fusaichi Pegasus, proclaimed Super Horse before the Derby, after winning the Derby, and after winning the Jerome before the Breeders Cup, despite the horse having breeding, soundness and handling issues. And while the majority presumed that FuPeg would romp at the Breeders Cup, in the end, this guy won in a classic battle with Ireland's Giant's Causeway. Prior to that race, Tiznow was somewhat obscure; he hadn't run in the Triple Crown, and his big wins were the Super Derby and Goodwood. In the end, those three wins made him Horse of the Year. But it was a pretty weak year all around (the best other options were Lemon Drop Kid and Kona Gold--ugh), and while his campaign was neat, it wasn't quite up to the level of the next three.

3. Bernardini (2006). On paper his year wasn't much better than a few of the horses we've already discussed; he won the Preakness, Travers, JCGC and Jim Dandy, which isn't too different from Summer Bird, and Bernardini also ran 2nd in the BC Classic. The difference was how much talent, potential and ability this horse showed. With the possible exception of Big Brown, none of the previous seven horses were as freakish and machine-like as this guy, who from May to September was one of the best horses we've seen this decade. We're still sad he didn't run as a four year old, because he could have been an all-time great.

2. Curlin (2007). He'll get a better treatment from us in the Horse of the Decade debate, so we'll just answer it quickly, why isn't he our #1 instead of...

1. Point Given (2001)...? Broken down, Point Given had a better 3 year old season. Point Given was the only horse to win four $1,000,000 races in a row (Preakness-Belmont-Haskell-Travers) and was fairly dominant in all 4 races over a pretty solid crop of horses. Prior to that, he won both of this Derby preps, including the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, and with a better ride, probably could/should have been second in the Derby behind Monarchos. By contrast, Curlin won 3 Grade 1's (Preakness, JCGC and BC Classic), ran a good 2nd in the Belmont and a solid 3rd in the Derby. His campaign was amazing considering he hadn't run as a 2 year old. But for the three year old season only? Point Given's 2001 was the most dominant horse we saw and he gets the nod.

Eclipse Ballot: 1. Point Given; 2. Curlin; 3. Bernardini.

Older Male

We can divide these ten horses into four groups.

(1) Nice horses that won the award because they were the best in weak years, and have no business being in the discussion. By this we mean Left Bank (2002), Lawyer Ron (2007) and whoever wins this year (probably Gio Ponti). Thanks for playing, fellas.

(2) Horses that we clearly the best their year and were in no way transcendent. Lemon Drop Kid (2000), Mineshaft (2003), and Saint Liam (2005) were all very good horses and should have won the Eclipse in their respective years. Are any of them even close to a Hall of Fame conversation? No.

(3) The warriors. Tiznow (2001) and Curlin (2008) both followed up winning Horse of the Year a as a three year old by running ambitious 4 year old campaigns. Tiznow's season was in two parts: he ran well in California by winning the Big 'Cap, then took off the summer to run a pair of 3rd place finishes before winning the BC Classic. A nice year and a nice horse, but not exactly Pensky material.

Curlin won Horse of the Year for his 4 Grade 1 wins in 2008: the Dubai World Cup, Stephen Foster, Woodward and JCGC. He also ran a fairly game second in a try over the turf and a miserable 4th in the BC Classic. Great performances, great talent...there are really no knocks here.

(4) The freaks. Invasor (2006) is the freak closest to people's minds because he ran...well, 3 years ago. On a personal note, we saw this horse in the paddock before he won the 2006 Whitney and were blown away by how enormous he was. A physical specimen, outside of a meh run in Dubai, he won everything else in 2006, including a strong with over Bernardini in the BC Classic. Another horse with few flaws (he followed this up with wins in the Donn and Dubai World Cup in 2007).

But if there's a horse that defined brilliance and talent, it was Ghostzapper (2004). Ghostzapper's 2004 campaign was a perfect 4-for-4 with wins at 7 furlongs (Tom Fool) 9 furlongs (Woodward, some Jersey race) and 10 furlongs (BC Classic). Beyond that year, he won Grade 1's at 6 1/2 furlongs (Vosburgh) and a mile (Met Mile). While rarely healthy, when healthy, he was the fastest horse since Formal Gold and the most versatile in two decades. He could win long or short, in the front or from the rear. And he's the best older horse we saw this decade, hands down.

Eclipse Ballot: 1. Ghostzapper; 2. Curlin; 3. Invasor.

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