In the absence of detailed criteria, a ballot for the Eclipse Awards could become a list of personal favorites, and an explanation of the choices could sound like a song from "Mary Poppins." But, of course, voting should be more than that. Voting for the Eclipse Awards isn't an exercise in self-indulgence or an expression of regional loyalty, nor is it a flight of fancy. It's an honor and a responsibility. And, in fact, there are criteria, or at least guidelines, provided by history.
But 2011 was such an unusual year and so extraordinary for its mediocrity that it confounds many of the historical precedents. For example, only five Eclipse Award winning 3-year-old males won as few as three races in their championship campaigns, but all five (Funny Cide, Real Quiet, Silver Charm, Alysheba and Little Current) won two-thirds of the Triple Crown.
And so history argues rather cogently that without an accomplished campaign that includes at least four wins, a 3-year-old must pocket two of the famed jewels to earn championship honors. Nobody met that standard in 2011. The defining races weren't definitive. They produced more confusion than clarity. Animal Kingdom, the Kentucky Derby winner, had only one other victory, in the Spiral Stakes. Shackleford, the Preakness winner, and Ruler On Ice, the Belmont winner, admirable though they may be, didn't win another stakes race.
Among the season's 3-year-olds, only Caleb's Posse put together an extensive campaign of accomplishment at the highest level of competition. But history questions his credentials, too.
Every 3-year-old male that has won an Eclipse Award had a victory at a distance of at least 1 3/16 miles. If they didn't win a Triple Crown race, they won the Travers, or the Jockey Club Gold Cup (Slew o' Gold, when it was run at 1 1/2 miles), or the Breeders' Cup Classic. And so where does that leave Caleb's Posse, who won five stakes, including the Breeders' Cup Mile, but never won beyond 1 1/16 miles?
In other words, no 3-year-old male meets the historical criteria. It was that kind of year. The sport and its fans forever seemed to be searching for a star.
And the 3-year-old division isn't the only one that's problematic. Only one older male ever has won the Eclipse Award as champion handicap horse with as few as two stakes victories. But the brevity of Victory Gallop's campaign in 1999 was excused by voters because it was interrupted by a trip to Dubai, where he finished third in the $5 million World Cup.
History argues that winning the Eclipse Award as the champion handicap horse requires a campaign, if not interrupted by an international sojourn, that includes at least three major stakes victories. But Tizway, Game On Dude, Flat Out, First Dude and Drosselmeyer all won but two stakes, and without the Dubai dispensation.
Yes, Acclamation won five stakes in 2011, but four were on the turf. And so again history jumps forward with an opposing argument. The Eclipse Award for the champion older male is clearly intended to honor the best, or most accomplished, horse on dirt, not turf. That's why there's a turf award. When Kotashaan was Horse of the Year in 1993, he wasn't the champion handicap horse. Nor was John Henry the champion older horse in 1984, even though he was Horse of the Year. Why? Because the award honors accomplishments on the dirt, or main track.
But abstaining isn't an option; voting is a responsibility. And so here's one person's ballot.
Two-year-old colt or gelding
1. Union Rags
3. Secret Circle
Although he lost by a head to Hansen in the Juvenile, Union Rags had to overcome a wide trip and was probably best. Combine that with his Champagne and Saratoga Special victories, and he was the most accomplished juvenile of 2011.
1. My Miss Aurelia
2. Grace Hall
3. Stephanie's Kitten
Unbeaten in four races, My Miss Aurelia stands out.
Three-year-old colt or gelding
1. Caleb's Posse
2. Animal Kingdom
3. Stay Thirsty
In 2001, Xtra Heat won an Eclipse Award as the champion 3-year-old filly without racing beyond seven-eighths of a mile; so there's some historical precedent for a sprinter's winning a divisional title. And Caleb's Posse, who was arguably the most impressive Breeders' Cup winner, had the sort of campaign the sport should encourage, racing from January to November, at six different racetracks.
1. Royal Delta
2. It's Tricky
3. Plum Pretty
The winner of the Ladies' Classic stands out.
2. Game On Dude
3. Flat Out
He won only two stakes, but Tizway's Whitney and Metropolitan victories were among the best performances of the year.
1. Havre de Grace
2. Blind Luck
3. Awesome Maria
It's not close.
1. Caleb's Posse
3. Jackson Bend
Caleb's Posse and Amazombie are both worthy. But two of Amazombie's stakes victories came in restricted company, and Caleb's Posse was unbeaten around one turn.
1. Musical Romance
2. Sassy Image
3. Turbulent Descent
Although not spectacular, Musical Romance had an admirable campaign culminating in a Breeders' Cup victory.
2. Cape Blanco
3. St Nicholas Abbey
With four major stakes wins on turf, Acclamation is slightly more deserving.
2. Never Retreat
3. Sarah Lynx
Although she disappointed in the Breeders' Cup, Stacelita sparkled in the Flower Bowl and Beverly D. Stakes.
Horse of the Year
With five major stakes wins and a victory over males in the Woodward, Havre de Grace quite simply had the most accomplished and admirable campaign of any horse in the North America.
Bill Mott hit the sport's richest days squarely. With Royal Delta and Drosselmeyer giving the best performances of their careers at precisely the right time on the biggest stage, Mott became only the second trainer to win both the Ladies' Classic and Classic in the same year.
Ramon Dominguez won the Juvenile on Hansen, regularly rode the Horse of the Year and topped the national standings in earnings.