Analyzing the 2020 Eclipse Awards finalists

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A Jan. 4 announcement of the finalists for the 2019 Eclipse Awards largely yielded the expected, including in the most coveted Horse of the Year category, where Bricks and MortarMaximum Security, and Mitole were selected by voters.

Established in 1971, the Eclipse Awards determine North American championships from Thoroughbred racehorses and individuals, as determined by votes cast by members of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, Daily Racing Form, and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, whose voters include racing officials and Equibase representatives. Three finalists are chosen in each Eclipse classification.

Bricks and Mortar, considered the favorite for Horse of the Year, went 6-for-6 in 2019 while racing exclusively on turf; 3-year-old Maximum Security won three Grade 1s, including the Cigar Mile Handicap over older foes; and Mitole excelled as a dirt sprinter from six furlongs to a mile. Besides Horse of the Year, all three are likely to win other awards, split into different categories—all of which will be presented the evening of Jan. 23 at the 49th annual Eclipse Awards at Gulfstream Park.

Among championships awarded to individuals, the jockey and trainer tandem that teamed with Bricks and Mortar, Irad Ortiz, Jr. and trainer Chad Brown, were also announced as respective finalists and are widely expected to win. Both come off record-setting seasons, one in which Ortiz’s mounts earned more than $34 million and Brown’s stable amassed more than $31 million. Ortiz won his first Eclipse in 2018, while Brown has won three straight.

Other finalists include the partners that raced Bricks and Mortar, owners Klaravich Stables and William H. Lawrence, and the colt’s breeder, George Strawbridge Jr.

Regardless of the Horse of the Year outcome, Bricks and Mortar is a sure thing in another Eclipse Award category: male turf horse of 2019. It was in that division that he was untouchable last year, capped by a victory in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf. He won races across the country from 1 1/8 miles to 1 1/2 miles, earning $6,723,650, the largest ever for a horse that competed strictly on the grass in the U.S.

The two other Horse of the Year finalists also look poised to earn championships in the divisions in which they competed.

Mitole is a certainty to take home the male sprinter prize, having won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint to conclude 2019. With a 6-for-7 record last year, he won four Grade 1 races, only one less than Bricks and Mortar. Brilliant at six furlongs in the Breeders’ Cup, he also excelled at a mile when he defeated McKinzie in the Grade 1 Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap.

Along with McKinzie and Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Vino Rosso, Mitole is also a finalist in the older dirt male category, where both he and Vino Rosso have wide support.

As reflected by the votes that landed him among the finalists for Horse of the Year, Maximum Security looks poised to win a championship for 3-year-old male.

His three Grade 1 victories last year came in the Xpressbet.com Florida Derby, the TVG.com Haskell Invitational Stakes, and the aforementioned Cigar Mile.

It was a race he lost, the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, for which he will always be remembered. That afternoon he crossed the finish in front, only to be disqualified and placed 17th by stewards for interference. Country House was elevated to first.

Other finalists for 3-year-old male are Code of Honor, winner of the Runhappy Travers Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup before finishing seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Classic; and Omaha Beach, a three-time Grade 1 winner in 2019 who took the Arkansas Derby, Santa Anita Sprint Championship, and Runhappy Malibu Stakes.

As usual, many Breeders’ Cup winners became Eclipse Award finalists, though not all are assured of Eclipse prizes.

Blue Prize, who upset Midnight Bisou in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff, is considered unlikely to outpoll Midnight Bisou, who went 7-for-8 in 2019. Elate, fourth against males in the Classic, is the other finalist.

The closest vote tally in an equine category could come in the female turf horse division, where UniSistercharlie, and Got Stormy all turned in stellar seasons. A victory in the Breeders’ Cup Mile by Uni against males may sway support in her direction.

One of the few surprises of the Eclipse finalists is the absence of Tiz the Law in the 2-year-old male category. Beaten as the favorite when third in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club in the slop at Churchill Downs after winning the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes, he was outpolled by the three finalists of MaxfieldStorm the Court, and Structor.

Storm the Court and Structor won Breeders’ Cup Races, the TVG Juvenile and Juvenile Turf Presented by Coolmore America, respectively. Maxfield was scratched due to injury in the Juvenile after winning a maiden race and the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity.

Awards honoring owner, breeder, and apprentice jockey seem the most competitive among human categories.

Gary BarberPeter BrantKlaravich Stables and Lawrence are the owner finalists; Calumet FarmGodolphin, and Strawbridge top the breeder category; and Julio Correa, Angel Diaz, and Kazushi Kimura comprise the three finalists for outstanding apprentice jockey.

Of the 254 eligible voters representing the NTRA, the NTWAB, and Daily Racing Form, 241 (95%) took part in this year’s voting. Finalists were determined in each category by voters’ top three selections, based on a 10-5-1 scale, though Eclipse Award winners are determined solely by first-place votes.

In addition to honoring the 17 winners in the horse and human categories, Scott Coles will receive the Eclipse Award as the 2019 Horseplayer of the Year and members of the media will be honored for outstanding coverage in six categories, the winners having already been determined and announced last month.

2019 Eclipse Awards Finalists (in Alphabetical Order):

Horse of the Year: Bricks and MortarMaximum SecurityMitole

Two-Year-Old Male: MaxfieldStorm the CourtStructor

Two-Year-Old Filly: BastBritish IdiomSharing

Three-Year-Old Male: Code of HonorMaximum SecurityOmaha Beach

Three-Year-Old Filly: CovfefeGuaranaSerengeti Empress

Older Dirt Male: McKinzieMitoleVino Rosso

Older Dirt Female: Blue PrizeElateMidnight Bisou

Male Sprinter: Imperial HintMitoleWorld of Trouble

Female Sprinter: Belvoir BayCome DancingCovfefe

Male Turf Horse: Bricks and MortarMo ForzaWorld of Trouble

Female Turf Horse: Got StormySistercharlieUni

Steeplechase Horse: Brain Power, Scorpiancer, Winston C

Owner: Gary BarberPeter BrantKlaravich Stables Inc. and William H. Lawrence

Breeder: Calumet FarmGodolphinGeorge Strawbridge Jr.

Trainer: Steve AsmussenChad BrownBrad Cox

Jockey: Javier CastellanoIrad Ortiz Jr.Jose Ortiz

Apprentice Jockey: Julio Correa, Angel Diaz, Kazushi Kimura

Breeders’ Cup preps reach crescendo with Fall Stars Weekend at Keeneland

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To the horse racing world, Keeneland is Disneyland. Everything about the Keeneland experience tells you that you are in a special place where the world revolves around thoroughbred racing and breeding.

Take Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, for example. Although it’s in a relatively small marketplace, it can handle 747 jets, because wealthy owners attending the horse sales often arrive in a jumbo jet with a large entourage. When you leave the airport, you are at the intersection of Man o’War Boulevard and Versailles Road. You’re literally across the street from Gate 1 of Keeneland Race Course. Keeneland, by the way, is adjacent to the legendary Calumet Farm. Venturing out onto various side streets, you will almost stumble upon some of the most famous breeding facilities in the world. In the paddocks of these farms, the vision of mares and their foals frolicking is commonplace, looking like a scene from a movie.

Keeneland is unique, as its elegance and its racing exist side by side with its primary purpose: being a place where millions of dollars change hands on a regular basis in the sales pavilion. A countless number of legendary horses had their careers begin with their purchase in that pavilion. Unlike venues in places like New York and California, where racing is conducted virtually year-round, racing at Keeneland is held for three weeks in the spring and three weeks in the fall.

RELATED: Pleasant Passage wins Miss Grillo Stakes

The fall meeting is situated perfectly to provide final prep races for many of the horses who are pointed to a performance in the Breeders’ Cup. In a span of 3 days, from October 7th to 9th, Fall Stars Weekend will feature 9 different “Win and You’re In” races in nine different Breeders’ Cup divisions. Normally, these would be very attractive races with large purses, but when you add in the fact that the Breeders’ Cup will be held at Keeneland this year, they are even more attractive. These races offer the prospect of having a horse get a final prep at Keeneland, stay stabled in the Lexington area, and then compete in the Breeders’ Cup, all in a four-week span. For those based at Keeneland, it means they will just have a brief walk through the magnificent stable area to get to the location where they will be racing.

History of The Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland

The first Breeders’ Cup held at Keeneland was the 2015 edition, and the decision to hold the event there was controversial. Many in the racing world felt that the facility was too small, as it could not hold the large crowds of Churchill Downs and Santa Anita. Brilliant management at Keeneland led to the attendance in the main building being limited, with satellite locations on the grounds handling the overflow of a total crowd of about 40,000. It was a comfortable event to attend, helped in no small part by the fact that the star of the show was the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. American Pharoah lived up to his billing, turning in a dominant performance to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the final race of his career. The event returned to Keeneland in 2020, but attendance was limited due to the pandemic. Once again, however, the star of the show delivered, as Kentucky Derby winner Authentic capped off his career with a win in the Classic.

Fall Stars Weekend will be featured in two telecasts, to be shown at 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday on CNBC. Each day will feature two live races, along with highlights of some of the other “Win and You’re In” races from the weekend.

RELATED: Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

Saturday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

On Saturday, the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity will be shown live. The winner will gain entrance to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The likely favorite will be the Todd Pletcher-trained Forte, who was a dominant winner of the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. Pletcher has another interesting prospect in Lost Ark, who is 2-for-2 lifetime, including a runaway win in the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth in his last start. Bob Baffert will be shipping in two juveniles for a possible start in the Breeders’ Futurity. Most notable of these is Carmel Road, who captured a maiden race at Del Mar by 8 ½ lengths in his last start. The other possible Baffert starter is National Treasure, who captured a 6 ½ furlong Maiden race at Del Mar in a fast time in his only career start. Another youngster pointed to this race is Frosted Departure, from the barn of Ken McPeek. This one captured an allowance race at Churchill Downs by 9 ¼ lengths last time out.

The other live race on Saturday’s telecast is the Coolmore Turf Mile, which is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. This is always a contentious race, and some veteran campaigners who haven’t lost a step highlight this year’s field. One of those vets is the Bill Mott-trained Casa Creed, who won the Fourstardave Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. Major turf races at this time of year frequently feature Chad Brown trainees, and this race is no exception. His top two probables here are Emaraaty, who won the Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga in his last start, and Masen, who won the Poker Stakes at Belmont earlier this year. Paulo Lobo will return with In Love, who won this race last year.  Finally, how about a horse who has been 1st or 2nd in 10 of 12 lifetime starts at 1 mile on turf? That’s trainer Michael McCarthy’s veteran Smooth Like Strait. This one is a wide-open affair with some worthy contenders, to be sure.

RELATED: Mo Donegal rewards team’s confidence at Belmont

Sunday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

The first live race on Sunday’s telecast from Keeneland will be the Bourbon Stakes, for 2-year-olds on the turf. It is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Some key trainers dominate the storylines in this race. Mark Casse has won the Bourbon Stakes in 4 of its last 7 runnings, and he will run Boppy O, the winner of the With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. McPeek is another 4-time winner of the Bourbon. He won last year with Tiz The Bomb, who then went on to finish 2nd in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. His 2 probables for the race are Rarified Flair (2nd in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile last out) and B Minor (won a Maiden race on dirt at Churchill Downs in his last start). It also should be noted that North America’s all-time leading trainer in wins, Steve Asmussen, will have two probable entries in Red Route One and Gigante. Red Route One won a Maiden race at Kentucky Downs in his last, while Gigante was the winner of the Kitten’s Joy Stakes at Colonial Downs in his last appearance. Finally, there is Brendan Walsh, who seems to always be a factor in Kentucky, and especially in turf races. He presents Reckoning Force, who won that $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile in his last out.

The show-topper on Sunday is the venerable Juddmonte Spinster Stakes. Back in 1984, Princess Rooney posted a win in the Spinster as her final prep before winning the inaugural running of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Other notables who have won this race in their final prep before winning the Distaff include Bayakoa, Paseana, Inside Information and Blue Prize.

This year’s Juddmonte Spinster features a matchup between two of the top females of the past couple of years in Letruska and Malathaat. Letruska won the Spinster last year on her way to an Eclipse Award as top older female dirt horse. This year, she has posted 2 wins and a third in 4 starts. Malathaat won the 2021 Kentucky Oaks and was 3rd in the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She enters this race off a win in the Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga.

This weekend presents the final North American “Win and You’re In” opportunities for the Breeders’ Cup. In New York, California, and Kentucky, 14 horses will gain entry into the “Big Dance” of Thoroughbred Racing. Most of us will be getting a case of “Breeders’ Cup Fever” this weekend, as the reality of those races on the first weekend of November draws ever so much closer.

Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

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PARIS – Alpinista made light work of the rain and heavy ground to narrowly win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Jockey Luke Morris attacked heading into the last furlong and the 5-year-old mare just held off a late charge from Belgian jockey Christophe Soumillon on Vadeni and last year’s 80-1 winner Torquator Tasso, ridden by veteran Italian jockey Frankie Dettori.

“I had a beautiful draw in stall six and after being perfectly placed, there was a second when I thought we were getting drawn into it too early,” Morris said. “But once she had taken charge, I was able to sit on her from 100 meters out.”

Morris felt the conditions would have made it harder for Alpinista to attack the way she did.

“I was concerned when all that rain came but the race went very smoothly,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how it could have in a 20-runner Arc. It was incredible.”

Alpinista was among the pre-race favorites.

“If it hadn’t been my horse, I would have thought it was going to win every inch of the way, but when it’s your own of course it’s a nightmare,” Alpinista trainer Mark Prescott said. “I didn’t think all that rain would help, but she’s never traveled better and has come on with each race.”

It was not yet clear if Alpinista will next race at the Breeders’ Cup or the Japan Cup next month.