by Jon White
December 27, 2017
Below is how I plan to fill out my official Eclipse Award ballot for 2017, with the caveat that my decisions will not be absolutely final until the entire year is over. That is why I will not be submitting my ballot until after racing this Sunday (Dec. 31) is completed.
TWO-YEAR-OLD MALE: 1. Good Magic, 2. Bolt d’Oro, 3.Mendelssohn.
This was an extremely difficult vote for me in terms of choosing between Good Magic and Bolt d’Oro.
Good Magic won only one race, but it was the most significant race in this category, the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Del Mar. The Kentucky-bred Curlin colt, trained by Chad Brown, not only won the BC Juvenile at 11-1, he did so with authority by 4 1/4 lengths. Solomini finished second. Bolt d’Oro ended up third, 5 1/4 lengths behind Good Magic.
Bolt d’Oro won a pair of Grade I races, the Del Mar Futurity and FrontRunner at Santa Anita. Backed down to 3-5 favoritism in the BC Juvenile, he finished third, though he did have an extremely wide trip.
Mendelssohn took the Grade I BC Juvenile Turf after winning one of four starts while racing in Ireland and England.
TWO-YEAR-OLD FEMALE: 1. Caledonia Road, 2. Rushing Fall, 3.Moonshine Memories.
Caledonia Road won two of three starts during the year, highlighted by an emphatic 3 1/4-length triumph in the BC Juvenile Fillies at Del Mar. Ralph Nicks conditions the Kentucky-bred daughter of Quality Road.
Rushing Fall was three for three during the year and very nearly got my vote in this category. She won the Grade III Jessamine at Keeneland and Grade I BC Juvenile Fillies Turf at Del Mar. All three of her starts came on the grass.
Going into the BC Juvenile Fillies, Moonshine Memories was three for three, including Grade I victories in the Del Mar Debutante and Santa Anita’s Chandelier. But she wound up seventh as the 2-1 favorite in her Breeders’ Cup race.
THREE-YEAR-OLD MALE: 1. West Coast, 2. Always Dreaming, 3. Classic Empire.
Here at Xpressbet on July 12, I wrote this prior to West Coast’s start in the Grade III Los Alamitos Derby: “I think West Coast has the kind of talent to possibly have a big summer and fall campaign. Perhaps he even can run his way into the conversation for an Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male of 2017. In terms of the Eclipse Award in this category, there currently is no clear-cut favorite. Prominent contenders, of course, are the three colts to have each won a Triple Crown race this year -- Always Dreaming, Cloud Computing and Tapwrit.”
West Coast, trained by Bob Baffert, won the Los Al Derby by 2 3/4 lengths. He then stepped up and took the Grade I Travers at Saratoga by 3/1/4 lengths while defeating the winners of the Grade I Kentucky Derby (Always Dreaming), Grade I Preakness (Cloud Computing) and Grade I Belmont (Tapwrit).
Following the Travers, West Coast cruised to a 7 3/4-lengrth win in the Grade I Pennsylvania Derby to firmly establish himself as the favorite to be voted an Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male. The Kentucky-bred Flatter colt did not hurt his cause in this regard by doing the best of the 3-year-olds in the Grade I BC Classic at Del Mar by finishing third in his first start vs. older rivals.
After Always Dreaming’s back-to-back Grade I wins in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, he was the leader in the nation’s 3-year-old male division. But he not only lost his next three starts, he lost them by 14 lengths (when eighth in the Preakness), by 5 1/4 lengths (when third in the Grade II Jim Dandy) and by 18 lengths (when ninth in the Travers).
Classic Empire, who was voted a 2016 Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male, was plagued by both physical and mental issues in 2017. Even so, he managed to win the Grade I Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park and finish a close second in the Preakness.
THREE-YEAR-OLD FEMALE: 1. Abel Tasman, 2.Elate, 3. Paradise Woods.
Abel Tasman, trained by Bob Baffert, won a trio of Grade I races during the year. The Kentucky-bred Quality Road filly took the Grade I Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs, Grade I Acorn at Belmont and Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga. Additionally, she defeated all other 3-year-old fillies when the runner-up to older opponent Forever Unbridled in the Grade I BC Distaff at Del Mar.
Elate won the Grade I Alabama at Saratoga by 5 1/2 lengths. In her first start against her elders, she won the Grade I Beldame at Belmont by a big margin despite not having the best of trips. She was boxed in when full of run turning into the stretch and early in the stretch run. When a narrow seam materialized in the stretch a little more than three-sixteenths out, she then charged through between rivals and drew off to win by 8 1/4 lengths. Sent away as the 2-1 BC Distaff favorite, she finished fourth behind Forever Unbridled, Abel Tasman and Paradise Woods.
Paradise Woods was nothing less than sensational when she won the Grade I Santa Anita Oaks by 11 3/4 lengths. Her margin of victory was the biggest in the history of the Santa Anita Oaks. Paradise Woods broke the record of 10 1/2 lengths set by Silver Spoon in 1959. In her final 2017 start, she finished second to Unique Bella in Tuesday’s Grade I La Brea at Santa Anita.
OLDER DIRT MALE: 1. Gun Runner, 2. Collected, 3. Arrogate.
Gun Runner, trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, won all five of his 2017 starts on American soil. His lone loss during the year came when he finished second to Arrogate in the Group I Dubai World Cup.
Not only did Gun Runner run the table in America this year, there were no photo finishes. The 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Candy Ride colt won the Grade III Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn Park by 5 3/4 lengths, Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs by seven lengths, Grade I Whitney at Saratoga by 5 1/4 lengths, Grade I Woodward at Saratoga by 10 1/4 lengths and Grade I BC Classic at Del Mar by 2 1/4 lengths.
In the BC Classic, Gun Runner avenged his defeat in Dubai. His BC Classic victims included Arrogate, who finished in a dead heat for fifth.
Collected was undefeated in 2017 until he finished second in the BC Classic. He won the Grade II Californian and Grade III Precisionist at Santa Anita and Grade I Pacific Classic at Del Mar. However, Collected ended his 2017 campaign with a disappointing performance, finishing third as a 1-5 favorite in Tuesday’s Grade II San Antonio at Santa Anita.
Arrogate, who was voted a 2016 Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male, was the heavy early favorite for 2017 Horse of the Year after he won his first two starts this year. He broke Gulfstream Park’s 1 1/8-mile track record when he won the Grade I Pegasus World Cup in his 2017 debut, then was sensational in the Group I Dubai World Cup when he overcame a terrible start to win by 2 1/4 lengths over Gun Runner.
But while Gun Runner won his remaining four 2017 starts, Arrogate lost all three of his three starts after his trip to Dubai. Arrogate finished fourth and lost by 15 1/4 lengths as the 1-20 favorite in the Grade II San Diego Handicap at Del Mar, ran second in Del Mar’s Grade I Pacific Classic as the 3-5 favorite, then finished in a dead heat for fifth in the Grade I BC Classic as the 2-1 favorite.
OLDER DIRT FEMALE: 1. Forever Unbridled, 2. Stellar Wind, 3. Songbird.
I wish Forever Unbridled had raced more than just three times this year, but she did win all three. The 5-year-old Kentucky-bred Unbridled’s Song mare made her 2017 debut with a victory in the Grade II Fleur de Lis Handicap at Churchill Downs for trainer Dallas Stewart. Forever Unbridled then won the Grade I Personal Ensign at Saratoga and Grade I BC Distaff at Del Mar.
Stellar Wind, who was voted a 2015 Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly, won the same number of 2017 races as Forever Unbridled. And all three of Stellar Wind’s victories this year came at the Grade I level (Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park, Beholder Mile at Santa Anita and Clement L. Hirsch at Del Mar). However, Stellar Wind ended up eighth, 12 1/2 lengths behind Forever Unbridled, in the BC Distaff.
Songbird, who was voted Eclipse Awards as champion 2-year-old filly of 2015 and champion 3-year-old filly of 2016, won two of three starts this year. She was victorious in the Grade I Ogden Phipps at Belmont and Grade I Delaware Handicap before finishing second, a neck behind Forever Unbridled, in the Grade I Personal Ensign at Saratoga.
MALE SPRINTER: 1. Roy H, 2. Imperial Hint, 3. Stormy Liberal.
Roy H is an easy choice. Trained by Peter Miller, the 5-year-old Kentucky-bred More Than Ready gelding won a pair of Grade I events in 2017, the Santa Anita Sprint Championship and BC Sprint at Del Mar. The only time Roy H lost during the year, he had a legitimate excuse. He finished second in the Grade I Bing Crosby at Del Mar when carried out extremely wide coming into the stretch by a riderless Drefong, the Eclipse Award-winning sprinter of 2016.
Imperial Hunt won four of five starts this year. His lone defeat came when he finished second to Roy H in the BC Sprint.
Stormy Liberal won five of six starts in the U.S. this year. His biggest 2017 victory came in the Grade I BC Turf Sprint at Del Mar.
FEMALE SPRINTER: 1.Paulassilverlining, 2. Ami’s Mesa, 3. Bar of Gold.
For me, this category this year is a real head-scratcher. Only one filly or mare managed to win more than one Grade I sprint this year. Paulassilverlining won two such races, the Madison at Keeneland and Humana Distaff at Churchill Downs. However, in her final 2017 start, she finished sixth in the BC Filly & Mare Sprint at Del Mar.
Ami’s Mesa and Bar of Gold met twice this year, each winning once. Ami’s Mesa won the Grade II Presque Isle Masters by one length, with Bar of Gold finishing second. And then Bar of Gold pulled off a shocking 66-1 upset in the BC Filly & Mare Sprint, which she won by a nose, with Ami’s Mesa second.
MALE TURF: 1. World Approval, 2. Beach Patrol, 3. Talismanic.
To a large extent, World Approval is my choice in this category because he won his Breeders’ Cup race and Beach Patrol didn’t.
World Approval, a 5-year-old Florida-bred Northern Afleet gelding trained by Mark Casse, completed his 2017 campaign by reeling off Grade I victories in the Fourstardave Handicap at Saratoga, Woodbine Mile and BC Mile at Del Mar.
Beach Patrol won the Grade I Arlington Million at Arlington Park and Grade I Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont. He then finished second in the BC Turf at Del Mar.
Talismanic invaded from France to win the BC Turf by a half-length at 4-1.
FEMALE TURF: 1. Lady Eli, 2. Wuheida, 3. Off Limits.
Lady Eli, a 5-year-old Kentucky-bred Devine Park mare, was a two-time Grade I winner this year. She took the Grade I Gamely at Santa Anita and Grade I Diana at Saratoga. Sent away as the 3-2 favorite in the BC Filly & Mare Turf at Del Mar, Lady Eli wound up seventh after being knocked around in traffic early and emerged from the race with a number of nasty cuts on her hind legs.
Even though Lady Eli has won 10 of 14 lifetime starts while competing at the highest level of the sport, she has never been voted an Eclipse Award. She is, without question, one of the best stories in American racing in terms of her comeback from a life-threatening battle with laminitis in 2015 to win multiple Grade I races.
Europe’s Wuheida captured the Grade I BC Filly & Mare Turf at 11-1.
Off Limits won the Grade I Matriarch at Del Mar. A gem of consistency, she posted five wins and a second from six starts this year.
STEEPLECHASE: 1. Scorpiancer, 2. Modem, 3. All the Way Jose.
TRAINER: 1. Chad Brown, 2. Bob Baffert, 3. Steve Asmussen.
JOCKEY: 1. Jose Ortiz, 2. Mike Smith, 3. Javier Castellano.
APPRENTICE JOCKEY: 1. Evin Roman, 2. Hector Diaz Jr., 3. Katie Clawson.
OWNER: 1. Sol Kumin, 2. Juddmonte Farms, 3.Goldophin Racing.
BREEDER: 1. Clearsky Farms, 2. WinStar Farm, 3. Besilu Stables.
HORSE OF THE YEAR: 1. Gun Runner, 2. Collected, 3. West Coast.
In my eyes, there is absolutely no doubt that Gun Runner is the 2017 Horse of the Year. His resume for this prestigious award -- five wins from five North American starts this year as well as North America’s only four-time Grade I-winning Thoroughbred in 2017 -- is far and away better than anyone else’s.
JACK VAN BERG PASSES AWAY
I, like many others, am saddened by reports today (Wednesday) that Jack Van Berg, one of the greatest trainers of all time, died this morning in Arkansas at the age of 81. He had been in declining health due to complications from cancer while hospitalized at Baptist Medical Center in Little Rock.
Van Berg is best known as the trainer of Alysheba, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993. Alysheba was voted a 1987 Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male. He won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but his bid for Triple Crown glory was thwarted when he finished fourth as a 4-5 favorite in the Belmont. Bet Twice won the Belmont.
Alysheba met 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand in the 1987 BC Classic at Hollywood Park with the Horse of the Year title on the line. The 1987 BC Classic came down to a dramatic photo finish between the two Kentucky Derby winners. Ferdinand prevailed by a scant nose, with Alysheba having to settle for second.
In 1988, Alysheba was voted Eclipse Awards as Horse of the Year and champion older male. He put an exclamation point on his outstanding 4-year-old campaign by winning the BC Classic by a neck in the dark on a muddy track at Churchill Downs in the final start of his career. When Alysheba retired from racing after his BC Classic triumph, he had the distinction of being the world’s richest Thoroughbred of all time with career earnings of $6,679,242.
Van Berg was voted a 1984 Eclipse Award as outstanding trainer. He won the Preakness that year with Gate Dancer, who was known for racing with earmuffs. Gate Dancer, who had a penchant for lugging in, was a protagonist in the controversial inaugural BC Classic at Hollywood Park in 1984. Wild Again finished first, Gate Dancer second and Slew o’ Gold third. The official Daily Racing Form chart of that race states in part: “The stewards lit the inquiry sign and, after reviewing the videotapes of the running, disqualified Gate Dancer for causing severe interference in the final sixteenth and placed him third.”
Earlier in 1984, Gate Dancer finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby. But he was disqualified and placed fifth for lugging in and bumping Fali Time several times during the stretch run. Gate Dancer remains the only horse to ever be disqualified for a race foul in the history of the Kentucky Derby.
Despite Gate Dancer’s DQ’s, Van Berg was understandably proud of what both Alysheba and Gate Dancer accomplished. They certainly were the two best of the thousands of horses the Nebraska native trained during his very long career.
Van Berg was the leading trainer in the country in wins for the year nine times from 1968-86.
Through Tuesday according to Equibase, Van Berg had 6,523 wins to rank fourth on the all-time list for North American-based trainers, behind only Dale Baird (9,445), Steve Asmussen (7,877) and Jerry Hollendorfer (7,375).
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas had a powerful national operation in the 1980s and 1990s, during which time his stable was divided among multiple tracks from coast to coast. But Van Berg actually was the pioneer in terms of operating a successful national stable.
In 1976, before Lukas switched from Quarter Horses to Thoroughbreds, Van Berg constantly was on airplanes due to having horses stabled at numerous tracks. The nationwide approach by Van Berg was one of the reasons he won a total of 496 races in 1976, smashing the record for most victories in a single year that had been set when Richard “Dick” Dutrow Sr. won 352 races in 1975. Also in 1976, Van Berg led the nation’s trainers in money won ($2,976,196).
How remarkable was it for Van Berg to win 496 races in one year? It was a record that stood for 28 years. Asmussen finally broke it when he won 555 races in 2004.
I was working for the Daily Racing Form in 1976 at Louisiana Downs when Van Berg trained a horse by the name of Herbert, who became a fan favorite. Herbert was the first horse to become a star at Louisiana Downs, which had its grand opening on Oct. 30, 1974.
The first time Herbert raced at Louisiana Downs in 1976 was when he won by eight lengths and broke the six-furlong track record on Aug. 22. He then won by 11 lengths on Aug. 28, six lengths on Sept. 18, four lengths on Sept. 18 and 4 1/2 lengths on Oct. 10.
After Herbert’s Oct. 10 win at Louisiana Downs, he was sent to Churchill Downs. He ran sixth in an allowance race at Churchill on Nov. 4, then won a six-furlong allowance affair there by six lengths under apprentice Steve Cauthen.
In Herbert’s final 1976 start at Louisiana Downs, he carried 132 pounds and won the 1 1/8-mile Bicentennial Handicap by six lengths. Angelo Trosclair rode Herbert in each of his starts at Louisiana Downs that year.
In the 1980s, I was working for the Racing Form at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Del Mar and Fairplex. In those years, Van Berg’s stable was based at the Southern California tracks. From time to time when I would encounter Van Berg, I’d mention Herbert to him. Each time, Van Berg would break out into a huge smile, then talk about how Herbert was a really good horse and one of his favorites.
Van Berg was voted into the national Hall of Fame in 1985, joining his father, Marion Van Berg, who was inducted in 1970.