As I was checking to see if my rarely-worn tuxedo still fit in anticipation of this year's Eclipse Awards dinner in Miami Beach, Fla., I reflected back 20 years to the first time I attended the sport's night of champions. Turns out my waistline isn't the only thing that's changed.
At that Eclipse Awards dinner of 1989, held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., the winners had all been announced beforehand. Alysheba was the toast of the racing world. The son of Alydar had just completed a magnificent 4-year-old campaign for owners Dorothy and Pam Scharbauer and trainer Jack Van Berg, winning six Grade 1 races including a dramatic Breeders' Cup Classic in near-darkness at Churchill Downs. Alysheba has been Van Berg's only Eclipse Award winner, earning a championship as the outstanding 3-year-old of 1987 and getting champion older male and Horse of the Year for 1988. Twenty years later, Van Berg, Eclipse Award-winning trainer of 1984 and a member of the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame, competes in relative obscurity on the Southern California circuit. Alysheba proved to be a tough act to follow.
Alysheba was retired to stud at Lane's End Farm in Kentucky, but failed to pass along the talent he showed as a racehorse to his offspring. After siring only a handful of stakes winners, he was sold to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. He was out of sight and out of mind, at least until being returned last year to the United States, where he is living out his days as a pensioner at the Kentucky Horse Park near Lexington.
Another memorable star honored at that year's Eclipse Awards was Personal Ensign, whose heart-pounding victory in the 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff is considered by many the greatest Breeders' Cup race ever. Getting up in the final jump, the 4-year-old daughter of Private Account put the finishing touch on a perfect racing career that saw her win 13 races without defeat. Unlike Alysheba, Personal Ensign has made an equally impressive impact in the breeding shed, producing several Grade 1 winners and being named Kentucky broodmare of the year in 1996.
Personal Ensign and Alysheba were two of five Eclipse Award-winning runners from 1988 to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Easy Goer, that year's 2-year-old champion male, Winning Colors, the Kentucky Derby-winning champion 3-year-old filly, and Miesque, the female turf champion, were the others. It was an outstanding group of horses that also included Open Mind, the 2-year-old filly champion who repeated as an Eclipse Award winner the following year and some day should be installed in the Hall of Fame herself.
Both Personal Ensign and Easy Goer were owned and bred by the late Ogden Phipps, who won dual Eclipse Awards as outstanding owner and breeder of 1988. His award as leading owner ended a three-year run by the late Gene Klein, who like Phipps owned two 1988 champions, Open Mind and Winning Colors. Personal Ensign and Easy Goer were trained by Shug McGaughey, who won for outstanding trainer, his only Eclipse Award. McGaughey later was voted into the Hall of Fame.
McGaughey's Eclipse Award came at the expense of D. Wayne Lukas, who was honored as outstanding trainer the three previous years and had perhaps his greatest year ever in 1988. He trained three champions that year -- Open Mind, Winning Colors and sprint champion Gulch -- won his first Kentucky Derby, and set a single-season earnings record of $17.8 million, more than twice as much as any other trainer had earned in a year. The record stood until 2003, when it was broken by Bobby Frankel.
The 1988 racing season was a bittersweet one for the family-owned Darby Dan Farm of Columbus, Ohio, and Lexington, Ky. John Galbreath, who founded Darby Dan a half-century earlier, died in July 1988, but one of the horses he bred, Sunshine Forever, won an Eclipse Award for Darby Dan as outstanding turf male. He was the product of two of Galbreath's finest homebreds, by Roberto and out of daughter of Graustark.
Sunshine Forever was the last of four Eclipse Award winners trained by John Veitch, another member of the Hall of Fame. Interestingly, like Van Berg, Veitch struggled after 1988, losing his job as private trainer for Darby Dan. Like Alysheba, he wound up in Saudi Arabia for a spell, but he's back in Kentucky, too, not as a trainer, but as the chief steward for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.
Actor John Forsythe was the regular host of the Eclipse Awards in the 1980s, and at the 1989 dinner he was recognized with an Eclipse Award of Merit for his efforts to promote the sport. Forsythe owned and bred a small string of Thoroughbreds but was better known as the star of the then-hit television series, 'Dynasty.'
Forsythe is 91 years old now and has retired from show business, having put in his last performance in a 2006 'Dynasty Reunion.' He had a long and distinguished career as a leading man, the epitome of suave and debonair. And I'll bet his old tuxedo still fits him.
Ray Paulick is a Lexington, Ky.-based journalist who publishes the Paulick Report. (www.PaulickReport.com). Paulick served as editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse magazine from 1992 to 2007, and in the past 25 years has covered Thoroughbred racing, breeding and sales on six continents and in more than a dozen countries. He has appeared on numerous television and radio news programs offering his expertise on the industry. Contact Ray at email@example.com.