This year, however, I decided to put my reservations aside for two reasons. First, the honor of receiving a ballot, secret or not, is not to be taken lightly. Second, after following and promoting and criticizing and praising these horses and connections over the entire year, the least a turf writer owes them is a nod of respect for a job well done. The system may not be perfect, but neither is the industry and neither are we.
Any smart young reporter will look to those with more experience in any situation -- post race interviews, conversations with trainers after morning works, the handling of sensitive issues -- and preparation for Eclipse Award voting should offer no exception. As I was preparing my ballot and reviewing past performances, Jay Hovdey's exceptional column on the topic caught my eye. I have chosen to follow his lead in two of my human selections.
The categories of apprentice jockey and trainer both posed problems this year; it has been a weak season for bug boys and the trainer division comes down to whether the award should be based purely on high statistical achievements (i.e. Steve Asmussen) or popularity among the fans (i.e. John Shirreffs). Hovdey went maverick on both choices, selecting the severely injured Michael Straight as leading apprentice and voting for the late Bobby Frankel as outstanding trainer.
Neither of those two made the finals, which were announced on Wednesday, but while they won't be named champion in their respective categories, both already exist as such in our hearts -- Straight for giving far more to the industry than a 24-year-old apprentice should have had to give, and Frankel for maintaining a strong presence in 2009 in spite of his terminal illness. Hovdey was spot-on in his choices here and, as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
A quick run-though of my selections in the other categories: Steeplechase (Mixed Up), 2-year-old colt or gelding (Lookin At Lucky), 2-year-old filly (She Be Wild), 3-year-old colt or gelding (Summer Bird), 3-year-old filly (Rachel Alexandra), older male (Gio Ponti), older filly or mare (Zenyatta), sprinter (Zensational), female sprinter (Informed Decision), male turf horse (Gio Ponti), female turf horse (Goldikova), breeder (Juddmonte), owner (Jerry and Ann Moss), trainer (Bobby Frankel), jockey (Ramon Dominguez), apprentice jockey (Michael Straight).
Now for Horse of the Year, I chose Zenyatta. There's nothing to be said that hasn't already been said on that subject, but here's the bottom line -- like many of my fellow Turf writers, I would have approved a chance to offer an unprecedented Horse of the Year title to both. Since that is not an option, I chose the horse I believed to be the best. This is in no way knocking Rachel Alexandra, who moved me to tears with her Kentucky Oaks score and continued to impress throughout the season. But Zenyatta, in my book, is the champion based on the company she put away -- not only in the Breeders' Cup Classic, but in previous races this season -- and based upon the way she did it, and upon the distinct weight advantage she handed to her competitors on more than one occasion, and finally upon the fact that she handled the Classic distance in remarkable style.