Thursday, December 24, 2009

Horses of the Decades Part I: The Females

We had intended to write something about the horses of the decade. And then, Daily Racing Form blogger, publisher, columnist and racing aficionado Steve Crist threw down the gauntlet:
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to share your thoughts on which Eclipse Award winners of the soon-to-be-over 2000's were the very best of the decade, division by division. I'll make my final choices next week and the results are scheduled to be published in the DRF newspaper of January 2, 2010.
While we could simply list a bunch of horses in the comments section, there are some interesting debates to be had in many of these categories, and we're suckers for reminiscing about a decade of horse racing. So let's take up Steve's challenge and break down the 10 categories for decade-long Eclipse awards. In Part I, we'll break down the awards to females: 2yo, 3yo, 4yo+ and turf filly. In Part II, we'll break down the awards for males (same groups) and top sprinter. In Part III, we'll see who has a case for Horse of the Decade.

2 year old filly

3 horses won the Eclipse Award in this category solely because they won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies: Caressing in 2000, Tempera (2001) and Dreaming of Anna (2006). As they lack a real championship campaign, they're out of contention, along with whoever wins this year (probably She Be Wild).

Indian Blessing (2007) has had probably the best career out of all of these horses. However, solely looking at her 2 year old campaign (which we think is our charge, at least for the 2yos and 3yos, given that's how they awarded the Eclipse), she ran only 3 times and won the Breeders Cup in the mud where nobody fired. She's out too.

Halfbridled (2003), Sweet Catomine (2004) and Folklore (2005) were all nice horses with strikingly similar campaigns: all had 3 graded stakes wins that included a Grade 2, a non-Breeders Cup Grade 1, and the Breeders Cup JF. They all also have small bonus points in their favor: Folklore won another race and was never worse than second, Halfbridled's Breeders Cup win was probably the most impressive given she started from the deadly outside post, and Sweet Catomine was the most impressive looking on the track. Still, they're pretty tough to separate from each other, and unlike two other horses, lack the third G1 win. So let's look at the real two contenders:

--Storm Flag Flying (2002). Won three Grade 1's in her two year old season: the Matron, Frizette and Breeders Cup JF in a scintillating victory where she was passed in the stretch and came back. Until Zenyatta's Classic win, it was a contender for best BC moment this decade.

--Stardom Bound (2008). Hard to remember now, but at the beginning of this year, this was the three-year-old filly everyone was talking about, and not Rachel Alexandra. And with good reason. She won three G1's in California last year, including the BC JF, in a rallying style like Sweet Catomine but with a hair more panache. All of her stakes wins were authoritative, and everyone thought she'd be a superstar this year. (Sadly, injury kept that from happening.)

At the end of the day, SFF's Breeders Cup win was one of the most impressive this decade, and she did leave California to win a race. That tips the scale slightly in her favor over Stardom Bound. For the third slot, we'll give it to Halfbridled, who beat Ashado in the Breeders Cup (we'll get to her in a minute), won for fun from an outside post on BC day, and could have been a great one had she stayed healthy.

Eclipse Ballot: 1. Storm Flag Flying; 2. Stardom Bound; 3. Halfbridled .

3yo filly

Rachel Alexandra, who will win the 2009 Eclipse for this category in a walk, takes this category for the decade in a walk as well. Her 8-for-8 season with two wins over 3yo males, older males and 40+ lengths of wins in the Kentucky Oaks and Mother Goose is one of the best seasons ever by a filly. It's not worth debating too much, so let's instead ask: who get the other two slots on the ballot?

Let's dispense with the uninteresting ones quickly. Smuggler (2004) is one of the worst Eclipse winners this decade, winning in a year where nobody really put together a solid campaign. Wait a While (2006) and Xtra Heat (2001) won despite being specialists (turfing and sprinting, respectively) because like Smuggler, they succeeded in down years, and while both were neat horses, neither had the resume to be at the top. Farda Amiga (2002) and Proud Spell (2008) had markedly similar seasons with wins in the Kentucky Oaks and Alabama and some other decent showings, and while good, remain a level below the elite. This leaves us with three real contenders for the silver and bronze:

--Surfside (2000) dominated in a winter of 2000 with a pair of G1's (SA Oaks and Las Virgines), took the summer off, then came back to run a good 2nd in the Breeders Cup Distaff and beat the boys in the Clark Handicap. A win over older males means a lot, but the season was a hair odd and erratic.

--Ashado (2004) had an 8 start season with 3 big wins (Kentucky Oaks, CC American Oaks and BC Distaff), a pair of minor wins (Cotillion and Fair Ground Oaks) and a troika of excusable losses (Ashland to speedball Madcap Escapade, Mother Goose to the underrated Stellar Jayne and Alabama when she chased the pace and was caught by Society Selection). One of the better horses to run this decade, if forgotten in the wake of Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra.

--Rags to Riches (2007) is here based on two wins: a dominating win in the Kentucky Oaks and being the first filly to take the Belmont since Teddy Roosevelt was President. There wasn't too much of a campaign beyond that, but when you win the Belmont, you may not need one.

Based on the entire campaign, Ashado (left) clearly had the second-best 3yo filly season: a full 8-race campaign, ran at 7 tracks, and beat older females. We're going to be in the minority here and take Surfside for the third slot; we don't like that Rags to Riches only ran once again after the Belmont and lost the race. Longevity in the campaign does mean a lot.

Eclipse Ballot: 1. Rachel Alexandra; 2. Ashado; 3. Surfside.

Older Fillies and Mares

There are only seven horses to pick from here, as Azeri won three times (2002-2004) and Zenyatta won in 2008 and is a cinch to win it this year. We'll dispense with trying to make a case for Gourmet Girl (2001), Fleet Indian (2006), or Ginger Punch (2007): Gourmet Girl won by default in a horrible year, and Ginger Punch and Fleet Indian are the 5-6 finishers here in some order. We'll also give the above-mentioned Ashado kudos for a nice four year old season while noting that she's clearly the #4 of this group based on her older horse campaign.

How we judge this category actually turns on whether the question is best season or best career. Because if we're simply going by best season, the unheralded Riboletta (2000) is a real contender to dethrone Azeri and Zenyatta. In 2000, Riboletta dominated on both coasts with 5 G1 wins and 3 G2 wins. She entered the Breeders Cup Distaff as a 2-5 favorite that was everyone's lock of the day...and promptly bombed and finished well out of the money. Had she won the Distaff or even finished a strong second, she'd win the "best campaign" hands down.

While we're at it, let's check out the 5 Azeri and Zenyatta campaigns, just to help us split these two up a little:

Azeri '02: After winning a restricted race, she ran second in a G2 then ran off seven straight wins, incluing 5 Grade 1's (one of which was the BC Distraff) and 2 Grade 2's. While she was named Horse of the Year, that was in part because there were no good male horses that year. Indeed, her campaign, outside of the Breeders Cup win, is pretty similar to Riboletta's 2000 season.

Azeri '03: Started off the year with 3 G1's, then won a G2 in California before losing the Lady's Secret to the immortal Got Koko and getting injured before the Breeders Cup. She almost lost this Eclipse to Sightseek; you can't make a case this was her best year.

Azeri '04: D. Wayne Lukas took over her campaign from Laura DeSeroux with some truly odd results. She won the Apple Blossom, Spinster and Go For Wand (all G1's), but lost the Humana Distaff, Ogden Phipps (finishing 4th!) and Personal Ensign. On top of that, she had two starts against males where she was never competitive. Again, far below the '02 season, but kinda neat in retrospect.

Zenyatta '08: 7-for-7 all year (4 G1's, 3 G2's), a win outside of California where she annihilated the previous year's Eclipse winner (Ginger Punch) and true dominance on Breeders Cup day. Contender.

Zenyatta '09: A boring campaign is rounded out by a stellar BC Classic win. One win does not make a season, even if it was one of the greatest wins in BC history.

So what to do? We think that the Eclipse Award for the non-2yo and 3yo categories really should look at a horse's entire body of work. Based on that, Riboletta isn't a contender, as Azeri and Zenyatta tower over her. Still, we do want to note that if we did it based on a single season, she'd win. She was THAT dominant in 2000; nobody came near her until she flopped at Churchill Downs.

As for Azeri versus Zenyatta...this is not an easy debate. Azeri ran around the country, took on all comers, and put together two excellent years and one interesting year. But Zenyatta was undefeated and won the Breeders Cup Classic. You can't argue with perfection. Only Personal Ensign can match her undefeated record, her consistency, and her panache. And that makes her the top pick.

Eclipse Award ballot: 1. Zenyatta; 2. Azeri; 3. Riboletta

Turf Filly

The bias here is going to be fairly high in favor of European based horses, because, with all due respect, horses like Forever Together (2008), Lahudood (2007), Perfect Sting (2000) and Golden Apples (2002) campaigned against American horses and ran almost exclusively other fillies. While there's nothing wrong with that, European fillies raise the bar by routinely take on the boys and win. Their records may be less perfect than their American counterparts, but that goes part and parcel with facing tougher competition. If they repeatedly ran against the likes of Snow Polina and Megahertz, we're confident in arguing that they would have near perfect records.

For example, let's look at the 2003 Eclipse winner, Islington. That year, Islington had two wins and two thirds in six starts, which looks mediocre on its face. But in that campaign, she ran third to High Chapparal and Falbrav in one race (who ran 1-3 in the BC Turf that year), ran third to a pair of Euro studs in Nayef and Rakti earlier that year, and her two off-the-board finishes were a 3-length loss to males and a silly trip to Japan in December. We know results matter. But that's a mile more impressive than Perfect Sting racing against fillies that would be 200-1 against Falbrav.

As impressive as Islington's 2003 campaign was, she's not a contender for the top slot. Ouija Board (right) wins this category hands down based on both the best individual season (2004) and her entire career. Let's sum up a filly that will be mentioned in the Horse of the Decade argument in a few days:

--In 2004, her 3yo season (the best season by any Eclipse winner in this category), she ran five times and won 4 starts, including the BC Filly & Mare Turf, the Irish Oaks and the English Oaks. What's even more impressive is her one loss was a third place finish in Europe's biggest race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Yowks.

--Her next two seasons had "only" 5 wins in 14 starts. But the quality of those wins--damn. They include 4 Grade 1's, ranging from the F&M Turf, the Hong Kong Vase (!), the Nassau Stakes and Prince of Wales Stakes; all races of great import. Her other in the money finishes include the Japan Cup, Irish Champion Stakes, Coronation Cup, QEII Cup, and 2005 F&M Turf as well. She competed against the best and more than held her own. That merits the top spot in this division, and she's arguably the best turf filly to run in this country since Miesque.

--Her 2006 trip to the Breeders Cup resulted in Lord Derby coming to Churchill Downs for the race. His pre-race interview where he mocked how we pronounced the word "Derby" while sporting some horrible teeth was a highlight of the racing season.

After Ouija Board, for the rest of the ballot, it's a question of who you take a shine to between the aforementioned Islington, Banks Hill (2001) and Goldikova (2009, probably). Our personal preference goes to Goldikova for the place slot, based on her two BC Mile wins and her dominance on both sides of the pond (her losses in 2008 were to Zarkava, one of the best fillies this decade period), and Islington, who would have won two straight F&M Turfs but for Kieran Fallon's execrable ride in 2002. Banks Hill, while very good and dominating in the 2001 F&M Turf, lacked the overall je no se qua of the other two and seems to coast by on being out of super-mother Hasili.

Eclipse Award ballot: 1. Ouija Board; 2. Goldikova; 3. Islington

Coming up on Saturday: the males and sprinters.

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