The voting for this year's Eclipse Awards had appeared to be devoid of suspense and potential controversy. Sunday Silence was a standout for the horse-of-the-year title, and just about every other category seemed equally clear-cut.
Yet when the names of the 1989 thoroughbred champions were announced Monday, the results provoked intense criticism on both coasts.
Californians thought that their 2-year-old colt, Grand Canyon, should have earned the championship of his age group instead of the New York-based Rhythm. They argued that the voting procedures for the Eclipse are biased in favor of East Coast horses.
New Yorkers thought Dancing Spree was robbed when the award for champion sprinter went to Maryland-bred filly Safely Kept. In the view of the New York Times' Steven Crist, this may have been the most horrendous injustice since the Sacco-Vanzetti case. It was, he wrote, "astounding in its lack of logic."
Both controversies involve the importance of the Breeders' Cup in determining a whole year's championship. Rhythm earned his championship by winning only one stakes all year -- the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. So why, Crist asked, shouldn't Dancing Spree be named a champion on the strength of his victory over Safely Kept in the Breeders' Cup Sprint?
Actually the voters have arrived at a rough consensus on this issue. The Breeders' Cup is a definitive championship event, and the winner usually deserves to be named a champion -- unless some other horse has compiled such a superior yearlong record that a single race shouldn't be allowed to deny him a title. (This was the case, for example, when the sprinter Groovy was blown off the track by the filly Very Subtle in the 1987 Breeders' Cup Sprint and still won the title.)
Voters were similarly impressed by Safely Kept's eight-race winning streak before the Breeders' Cup -- a sharp contrast with Dancing Spree's spotty four-for-14 overall record. Crist protested that voters "neglected to note that her eight victories all came against fillies, two of them in restricted races for Maryland-breds. ... The only time she faced the best sprinters in the country she lost."
(Is this the same Crist who last year was touting Personal Ensign as a horse-of-the-year candidate because she had compiled a perfect record, mostly by beating bad fields of fillies? Maybe the difference is that Personal Ensign was a New York horse, instead of a despised Marylander.)
If Dancing Spree had beaten Safely Kept decisively in the Breeders' Cup, the knocks against the filly might be more credible. But it is absurd to look at the Dancing Spree's neck victory and say he proved he was the better horse. His victory was a fluke.
Safely Kept had to race head-to-head with the fastest speedball in America, Olympic Prospect, a phenomenal accomplishment in itself. Yet after these exertions she was only narrowly beaten by Dancing Spree, who got through on the rail all the way, enjoying as perfect a trip as any horse can have. If the two of them ever met again, you'd mortgage the house to bet on the filly. New Yorkers tend to get blinded whenever they see those black-and-cherry colors of Ogden Phipps, but any handicapper with a modicum of intelligence knows who the best sprinter in the country was.
According to the standard that a Breeders' Cup winner deserves the Eclipse Award unless somebody else has a dazzling overall record, Rhythm probably deserved to be the champion 2 year old. He won the Breeders' Cup by two lengths over Grand Canyon. Subsequently, Grand Canyon came back to win the $1 million Hollywood Juvenile in fast time, but it is debatable whether this victory over inferior competition should be enough to negate the results of the colts' head-to-head meeting.
What irks many Californians -- correctly -- is that many voters never weighed the significance of Grand Canyon's late-season victory. The past performances for Eclipse candidates were mailed to voters in early December, and while all the major stakes in the East were included, the Hollywood Futurity and the Hollywood Turf Cup hadn't been run. Jay Hovdey, writing in the Los Angeles Times, also points out that the horses on the list of Eclipse candidates were chosen by an all-Eastern panel, and omitted many worthy California stakes horses while including just about any New York horse capable of pulling a milk wagon.
Wayne Lukas, the trainer of Grand Canyon, thought an injustice had been done. "The biggest failing of the whole thing," he told Los Angeles writer Jay Privman, "is that the ballots are in the hands of the voters by Jan. 1. That is such a simple thing to correct. It's like voting for the national champion of football before all the games are finished."
Lukas is right; the voting procedures do need to be amended. But there is no need to correct the results which bestowed Eclipse Awards on Rhythm and Safely Kept.