Division Rankings: 2022 Eclipse Award thoughts

Division Rankings: 2022 Eclipse Award thoughts
Photo: Alex Evers / Eclipse Sportswire

Fresh and ready for the new season after a few weeks off, I’m ready for whatever the new season brings. With many big names from 2022 in the majority of divisions now retired, several new names figure to grab the headlines over the coming weeks and months. 

I look forward to the ever-changing rankings below and the debate with you, the fans, that comes with it. We will chronicle each division as it stands in relation to the year-end Eclipse awards, and by the end of the season you should have a very good understanding of which horse from each division deserves year-end accolades.

I wanted to add my two cents about last week’s Eclipse voting results. Before I do, let's take a very early first glance at week one of this year's Division Rankings.

Older dirt males

1. Taiba. Ran a good race in the Breeders' Classic to finish third and then wrapped up 2022 with a facile win sprinting in the Malibu (G1) at Santa Anita. We could be in store for a big season from this guy. The Saudi Cup (G1) will be his next start.
2. Art Collector. Big winner of the Pegasus World Cup (G1), he is age 6 now and looks to be in career form.

3. Cody's Wish. Came on late at the end of last season, winning the Forego (G1) at Saratoga and the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile by a nose over Cyberknife. 

4. Country Grammer. The Dubai World Cup (G1) winner from last season finished 2022 on a high note, winning the San Antonio (G2) in late December. He will go next in the Saudi Cup, where he was runner-up last year.

5. Defunded. Winner of graded stakes in two of his last three starts, he was runner-up to Art Collector in the Pegasus.
Next 5: Zandon, Rich Strike, Charge It, Stilleto Boy, Proxy.

Older dirt females

1. Nest
. Overmatched in the Breeders' Cup Distaff when off the board, finishing fourth. But she won a trio of grade 1 events in 2022 and was crowned with the Eclipse as the top 3-year-old filly. She is the leader of this division, for now.

2. Clairiere. She was third in that Breeders' Cup Distaff blanket finish, losing by two noses. She will be back this year with hopes of an Eclipse that she came close to getting last season.

3. Search Results. Well beaten in the Breeder's Cup Distaff, she still had a great season, placing in all of her starts but one.

4. Secret Oath
. Looked good turning for home in the Breeders' Cup Distaff but ran out of gas to finish fifth, beaten more than five lengths for the win. Back in training and will run at Oaklawn in the coming weeks.
5. Echo Zulu. Very good runner-up effort in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint after only one race to prepare since May. I am really looking forward to seeing this gal try two turns again.
Next 5:  Society, Pauline's Pearl, Midnight Memories, Matareya, Interstatedaydream.

3-year-old males

1. Forte. Reeled in Cave Rock in the stretch of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and is a deserving champion. Already three Grade 1 wins in his short career. Will make his 3-year-old debut at Gulfstream.
2. Cave Rock. Really no excuses when runner-up to Forte but still had a great campaign. Before the Breeders' Cup, he won by more than five in the American Pharoah (G1) at Santa Anita. Sort of forgotten right now. 3. Arabian Knight. He was dominant last week in the slop at Oaklawn to win the Southwest (G3).

4. Blazing Sevens. Fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he finished third in the Hopeful (G1) at Saratoga and then won the Champagne (G1) over a sloppy track. 5. Loggins. Close runner-up to Forte in the Breeders' Futurity (G1) in only his second start. This guy was flattered by that Breeders' Cup result.
Next 5
: National Treasure, Reincarnate, Havnameltdown, Instant Coffee, Dubyuhnell.

3-year-old females

1. Wonder Wheel. Super impressive in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, closing strong to win going away. Won the the Alcibiades (G1) at Keeneland in her previous start. Will start her season in Tampa Bay.
Leave No Trace. She validated her high ranking in these parts with her runner-up finish to Wonder Wheel at 25-1. Won the Spinaway (G1) in September. Should start her season at Gulfstream soon. 3. Hoosier Philly. The Golden Rod (G2) winner is unbeaten in three starts and will make her 3-year-old debut at Fair Grounds. 4. Raging Sea. Ran well when third to Wonder Wheel in the Breeders' Cup after finishing fourth to that same rival in the Alcibiades (G1) 5. And Tell Me Nolies. The Chandelier (G2) and Del Mar Debutante (G1) winner found the competition tough in the Breeder's Cup Juvenile Fillies, where she finished eighth, beaten about seven lengths.
Next 5
: Faiza, You're My Girl, Julia Shining, Munny's Gold, Shoplifter.

Turf males

1. Count Again. This guy racked up two Grade 1 wins this season before he went on the shelf. Should be back in training soon.

2. Atone. The Pegasus World Cup Turf winner (G1) is good enough to vault all the way to this spot for now.

3. Ivar. Ran well last year but has only one win to show for it. Was runner-up to Atone in the Pegasus World Cup Turf.

4. Santin. Won two Grade 1 races in 2022, and that's good enough to place him here for now.

5. Hong Kong Harry. Was 5-for-6 last season with three graded-stakes wins. Figures to contend in this division in 2023.

Next 5: Annapolis, Shirl's Speight, Highland Chief, Casa Creed, Beyond Brilliant.

Turf females

1. War Like Goddess. Robbed of an Eclipse in 2021, she came very close in 2022 again but Regal Glory was the deserved winner. Back again in 2023.

2. In Italian. Ran well when runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf. Before that effort, she scored her second Grade 1 win in a row in the First Lady at Keeneland. 

3. Bleecker Street. Suffered the first loss of her career last time out in the Diana (G1) last summer after starting her career 7-for-7. She put in her run from the back but had too much to do when finishing third.

4. Queen Goddess. The Pegasus Filly & Mare Turf (G3) winner looks to be a serious contender this year in this division. She has won four graded stakes.

5. Lady Speightspeare. Ran against the boys in the Pegasus World Cup Turf and finished fourth. Prior to that she was third in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf.

Next 5: Spendarella, Caravel, Shantisara, Gina Romantica, McKulick.

Male sprinters

1. Elite Power. The Breeders' Cup Sprint winner had never won a stakes until four weeks prior to his big win. Back this season.

2. Cody's Wish. Came on late at the end of last season, winning the Forego at Saratoga and narrowly winning the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile by a nose over Cyberknife. 

3. Gunite. Superb winner of his first 2023 start, the King Cotton Stakes at Oaklawn. Last year he won four stakes races.

4. American Theorem. Off the board in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, but he was very good out west in 2022.

5. C Z Rocket. This guy is now age 9, but he was runner-up to Elite Power in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Next 5: Laurel River, Repo Rocks, Endorsed, Tejano Twist, Factor It In.

Eclipse awards: Most categories had correct winners

In looking back at last week’s voting results, I was pleasantly surprised that the voting came out the way I felt it should have in all of the equine divisions save for one. In the 11 equine categories, my vote for the No. 1 spot was correct in 10. That’s a good thing and somewhat comforting to see that most voters did indeed get it right.

A couple of the divisions that the media tried to hype up as being up for grabs – 3-year-old male and turf female – were indeed not. Thankfully, Epicenter won in a landslide vote (155 first place votes to Taiba’s 66) and Regal Glory won her division by a wider-than-expected margin (96 first-place votes to 51 for In Italian and 47 for War Like Goddess). Both are well deserving winners.

Before I get into the one division were the voters got it wrong, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up these random thoughts, so bear with me.

For Horse of the Year, we had one voter who somehow felt that Country Grammer deserved the award. Country Grammer won one Grade 2 race in the U.S. in 2022. I’m all for opinions, but this one is out there and needs to be investigated and the reasoning understood.

But wait, there’s more.

We had one voter who felt Echo Zulu should have won the female sprint Eclipse off of her one sprint win, a Grade 3 in September. But then she was soundly beaten by Goodnight Olive, the rightful winner of this Eclipse in the Breeders’ Cup. Again, I would love to understand this voter's justification.

One voter felt Secret Oath should be given the 3-year-old filly Eclipse over Nest. Secret Oath ran against Nest four times. After beating her in the Kentucky Oaks (G1), she didn’t win another race in 2022 and was beaten by Nest the last three times they met on the racetrack. Again, help me understand the logic here. In this same vote one voter felt that Echo Zulu deserved it over Nest? This is even worse. Echo Zulu won two races the entire season, the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) and the aforementioned sprint race, the Dogwood (G3). She was soundly beaten by Nest in the Kentucky Oaks. Nest won a trio of Grade 1 races in 2022.

There are other weird votes, but these caught my eye. It’s almost as if some voters don’t take their responsibility seriously enough, with some even forcing their personal agenda’s into the vote.

What’s up with abstentions? I understand that if you have a personal connection and bias then it’s warranted and responsible. The abstention guidelines read as “Voters are expected to abstain in situations where they may have a unique personal interest, such as an ownership share in a horse who may be a viable candidate in a category.”

But to not vote because you didn’t like that Flightline only ran three times? Or not vote because you didn’t like the connections? Questionable at best, and if you ask me, it’s grandstanding. Just cast your vote, you’re lucky to have one. Many of the fans reading this piece have forgotten more about this sport than some who are lucky enough to have a vote even know. Those fans would be happy to have a vote.

Now for the one division I felt that the voters got wrong. 

Gone are the days when a horse can dominate their division for most of the racing season and win the Eclipse – at least in the sprint division in 2022.

Elite Power became the first horse in Eclipse Award history outside of the 2-year-old divisions to win an Eclipse despite not running in a stakes race the first nine months of the racing season. It continues a disturbing trend in Eclipse voting where horses absent from the U.S. graded-stakes calendar for most of the season are given too much equity with their wins late in the season over horses who were present in those earlier important divisional races. I will hear and read the counterpoints made that the Breeders' Cup is a championship race so it matters more. In my opinion, that’s a ridiculous take.

We are in a sport where the actual athletes – the horses – have no idea what race is what. They just run. So you'd better believe that as an Eclipse voter I weigh all parts of the year equally. If horse A has been running hard in graded stakes race since the start of the year and is leading their division throughout but suffers a loss or two at the end of the season, you'd better believe equity matters. And in the case of Jackie’s Warrior, he had built up more than enough equity to withstand a loss in the Breeders’ Cup to still garner the Eclipse.

For those who continue to offer this championship race take, don’t tell past sprint greats like Groovy, Housebuster and Lost in the Fog, who all failed in the Breeders’ Cup. Because of equity they built up throughout the racing season, they were given the Eclipse. Voters were different back then, though, and recency bias didn’t run as rampant in the sport as it does now.

Nowhere in any other sport you will see year-end MVP awards go to an athlete who was absent from competing against the best for the majority of the season. Only in our sport do some voters render the entire season meaningless except for the Breeders’ Cup. All because of this false notion that because we as humans label it a championship race that is supposed to mean something more to the horses.

I get it, the Breeders’ Cup serves as a barometer to decide Eclipse races where the contenders for whatever division in question is close.  But there have been so many egregious Eclipse snubs in recent years because of the recency bias, or maybe I should call it the Breeders’ Cup bias. War Like Goddess was a victim of this bias in 2021, Jackie’s Warrior in 2022. I’m afraid in the future years this will become worse unless there are hard requirements to win an Eclipse.

For starters, I believe that to be eligible win an Eclipse in all divisions except for the 2-year-olds, a horse should make at least three starts in North America. Handing out Eclipse awards based on one Breeders’ Cup start from a foreign-based horse is nonsense.

What about total starts for the season? I think that should matter too, and three isn’t enough. Is four or five starts too much to ask? I like five as the number for all divisions with the exception of the 2-year-olds. If it were up to me I would even go a step further with a number of stakes wins requirement, or at the very least, number of stakes starts requirement.

OK, I’m done with my long-winded venting. On to 2023.

Meet Chip Gehrke

Chip Gehrke has been with Horse Racing Nation since 2015 and currently serves as a Featured Writer. Based outside of Chicago, Chip used to frequent the press box many weekends during the Arlington Park meets. The On The Air With Dr. Derby name originates from his many local sports radio show appearances as an on-air racing expert. 

In 2017, Chip was chosen to be a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association. As a part of the NTWAB, Chip became a voter for the year-end Eclipse Awards, something he takes very seriously. Some of Chip's favorite writings from the last couple of years is the best way to get to know him.

 The Loss of Medina Spirit

California Chrome in Rarified Air

Cigar and the Pacific Classic

Spending Time With Game on Dude

Go For Wand: Gone But Not Forgotten

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