The 2021 Eclipse Awards present a combination of slam-dunk winners and intriguing debates.
For instance, there is little doubt that Letruska, who dominated her division last season to the tune of four Grade 1 wins, will be named champion older dirt female. Same with Knicks Go among older dirt males, Malathaat with 3-year-old fillies, and Echo Zulu in the 2-year-old filly division.
But what about the male sprinters, none of whom won more than one Grade 1 event? Or the female turf division, where domestic and international runners made their cases at various points of the year? And then there is the debate between Essential Quality and Medina Spirit to be named racing’s top 3-year-old male.
2021 Eclipse Award ballots were due Monday. Votes from members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Daily Racing Form and the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters will be tallied and revealed Feb. 10 in an annual ceremony.
Six Horse Racing Nation staffers or contributors with Eclipse Award votes – Ed DeRosa, Ron Flatter, Mark Midland, Laurie Ross, Tom Pedulla and Brad Stephens – shared their ballots for major equine and human categories. A seventh voter, Chip Gehrke, provided his votes along with in-depth analysis that can be found here.
We asked each of our voters to explain their votes for Horse of the Year. Each of them unsurprisingly came up with Breeders’ Cup Classic hero Knicks Go as the first-place choice.
Our voters were also asked to explain their votes in three contentious categories: 3-year-old Male, Male Sprinter, and Female Turf.
Horse of the Year
Brad: 1. Knicks Go, 2. Letruska, 3. Essential Quality
Knicks Go took three of the most important Grade 1 races on the calendar – the Pegasus World Cup Invitational, Whitney Stakes, and Breeders’ Cup Classic – and did so convincingly. A Breeders’ Cup Distaff win by Letruska would have given her five Grade 1 wins and made this an interesting conversation, but she finished 10th on the big stage.
Ed: 1. Knicks Go, 2. Loves Only You, 3. Letruska
Domestic Spending scratching, Letruska losing, and Knicks Go dominating eliminated any trace of potential drama for this year’s Horse of the Year: It’s Breeders Cup Classic winner Knicks Go.
Laurie: 1. Knicks Go, 2. Letruska, 3. Malathaat
Knicks Go’s victory in the Pegasus World Cup, plus four other wins culminating in a resounding victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic, towers above the rest of this year's graded performers. Although she tossed in a poor performance in the Distaff, Letruska won six of her seven other starts, including four Grade 1 victories, the most of any horse this year. Malathaat tops the 3-year-old filly division with three Grade 1 wins.
Mark: 1. Knicks Go, 2. Essential Quality, 3. Letruska
Knicks Go not only won the Breeders' Cup Classic but posted Grade 1 wins in the Pegasus and Whitney. He won five of seven for the year, with his only losses coming in an overseas attempt at the Saudi Cup (G1) and the Metropolitan Handicap (G1) on his return race from the Middle East. Essential Quality won two of the four biggest races for 3-year-olds in the Belmont and the Travers (G1), and Letruska deserves a vote for her tremendous year where she started 6-for-7, with only a head loss, going into her Breeders' Cup Distaff defeat.
Ron: 1. Knicks Go, 2. Letruska, 3. Essential Quality
Five wins on as many tracks, including a pair of Grade 1s, would be impressive in any year. That it was done by 5-year-old Knicks Go made it more impressive in a day and age when horses are raced to breed rather than bred to race. A sub-two-minute Breeders' Cup Classic was a real coup de grâce, perhaps the most impressive statistical performance in the history of the race. And the fact that Knicks Go went without Lasix in all but one race made his year a generational touchstone.
Tom: 1. Knicks Go, 2. Medina Spirit, 3. Essential Quality
From the Pegasus to the Classic, the year belonged to Knicks Go. He had his own way in the Classic and elsewhere because jockeys recognized that it was ruinous to challenge him early. Of course, there was no getting to him late.
All five of our voters who participated in this category settled on Corniche, winner of the American Pharoah Stakes (G1) and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile for trainer Bob Baffert. Champagne Stakes (G1) winner Jack Christopher took two runner-up votes with one each for Breeders’ Futurity (G1) hero Rattle N Roll, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf victor Modern Games and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up Pappacap.
Brad: 1. Corniche, 2. Jack Christopher, 3. Pappacap
Ed: Abstain from category
Laurie: 1. Corniche, 2. Rattle N Roll, 3. Tiz the Bomb
Mark: 1. Corniche, 2. Modern Games, 3. Smile Happy
Ron: 1. Corniche, 2. Jack Christopher, 3. Modern Games
Tom: 1. Corniche, 2. Pappacap, 3. Jack Christopher
Echo Zulu left little doubt she was best of her fellow females at 2, rolling to wins in the Spinaway Stakes (G1), Frizette Stakes (G1), and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. Four voters picked Juvenile Fillies runner-up Juju’s Map in second, with one vote each for Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf heroine Pizza Bianca and Frizette second-place finisher Gerrymander.
Brad: 1. Echo Zulu, 2. Juju's Map, 3. Pizza Bianca
Ed: 1. Echo Zulu, 2. Juju’s Map, 3. Pizza Bianca
Laurie: 1. Echo Zulu, 2. Juju's Map, 3. Pizza Bianca
Mark: 1. Echo Zulu, 2. Pizza Bianca, 3. Juju's Map
Ron: 1. Echo Zulu, 2. Juju's Map, 3. Pizza Bianca
Tom: 1. Echo Zulu, 2. Gerrymander, 3. Pizza Bianca
Brad: 1. Essential Quality, 2. Medina Spirit, 3. Hot Rod Charlie
I waited until close to the deadline to submit my ballot in case there were new developments in the Kentucky Derby disqualification saga. Those did not come, but they could in the month between now and Feb. 10, which would make for quite an awkward awards ceremony. I therefore chose between two resumes: A) wins in the Belmont, Travers, Jim Dandy and 100-point and 10-point Derby preps, a third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and a fourth in the Derby vs. B) wins in the Derby, Awesome Again, a 10-point Derby prep, and a non-graded 3-year-old stakes, second-place finishes in the Classic and three Derby preps, and a third in the Preakness. You could make a case for Option B, but I chose Option A.
Ed: 1. Essential Quality, 2. Hot Rod Charlie, 3. Life Is Good
What to do with Baffert and his horses was the biggest question facing voters on this year’s Eclipse Awards ballot. Coming in I resolved not to vote for any of his horses. In categories where it was impossible to make a case for anyone else (e.g., 2-year-old male) I abstained from voting. In categories where a case could be made for a non-Baffert horse, I always leaned in that direction (e.g., Ce Ce over Gamine for female sprinter and Essential Quality over Medina Spirit for 3-year-old male). On paper, for now, Medina Spirit has a solid case: He won the Kentucky Derby, defeated older males in the Awesome Again (G1) and was the best among his generation in the Classic won by my Horse of the Year selection Knicks Go. That said, he is likely going to be disqualified from his Kentucky Derby win, and it’s not as though Essential Quality is a slouch. He’s a three-time Grade 1 winner with wins going nine, 10 and 12 furlongs, and he was third in the Classic.
Laurie: 1. Medina Spirit, 2. Essential Quality, 3. Jackie's Warrior
Mark: 1. Essential Quality, 2. Medina Spirit, 3. Hot Rod Charlie
Essential Quality had a near-perfect season, finishing with five wins in seven starts. He had impressive wins in the Belmont, Travers (G1) and Blue Grass (G2) plus the Jim Dandy (G2) and Southwest (G3). His only losses were a troubled-trip fourth in the Kentucky Derby and a late-running third in the Breeders' Cup Classic. While some voters may vote for the late Medina Spirit for finishing ahead of Essential Quality the two times they faced in the Derby and Classic, I believe that Essential Quality accomplished more and is the better horse.
Ron: 1. Essential Quality, 2. Life Is Good, 3. Medina Spirit
Essential Quality was 1 1/4 lengths from being undefeated against 3-year-olds. More important, he won the race of the year in the Belmont Stakes, one of his two Grade 1 scores. Yes, Medina Spirit beat Essential Quality twice and had a Grade 1 win against older horses, but he was only 3-for-7 in races against 3-year-olds. This is not a head-to-head competition. It is a division championship. Just because the Saints beat the Packers in Week 1, that does not make New Orleans the best team in the NFC. In that context, Life Is Good ranks in my mind ahead of Medina Spirit, missing by a neck having a perfect year against 3-year-olds.
Tom: 1. Medina Spirit, 2. Essential Quality, 3. Life Is Good
I fail to understand why we have not had a ruling on the Kentucky Derby outcome despite Medina Spirit's positive post-race drug test. Since we have not, I have no choice but to respect the current result and cast a reluctant vote for the late colt who defeated primary rival Essential Quality in the Derby and Classic, their only two meetings.
Malathaat scored Grade 1 wins in the Ashland Stakes, Kentucky Oaks and Alabama Stakes, and she was the highest-finishing sophomore in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. The late Santa Barbara, twice a Grade 1 winner last year on turf, earned four runner-up votes. Del Mar Oaks (G1) heroine Going Global and Cotillion Stakes (G1) winner Clairiere both received one second-place vote.
Brad: 1. Malathaat, 2. Santa Barbara, 3. Clairiere
Ed: 1. Malathaat, 2. Santa Barbara, 3. Clairiere
Laurie: 1. Malathaat, 2. Santa Barbara, 3. Search Results
Mark: 1. Malathaat, 2. Santa Barbara, 3. Shantisara
Ron: 1. Malathaat, 2. Going Global, 3. Santa Barbara
Tom: 1. Malathaat, 2. Clairiere, 3. Bella Sofia
Older dirt male
It is little surprise that unanimous Horse of the Year choice Knicks Go was also the unanimous choice in his division. Clark Stakes (G1) winner Maxfield, who finished second to Knicks Go at Saratoga in the Whitney, was also second to him here among our voters.
Brad: 1. Knicks Go, 2. Maxfield, 3. Silver State
Ed: 1. Knicks Go, 2. Maxfield, 3. Art Collector
Laurie: 1. Knicks Go, 2. Maxfield, 3. Art Collector
Mark: 1. Knicks Go, 2. Maxfield, 3. Mystic Guide
Ron: 1. Knicks Go, 2. Maxfield, 3. Silver State
Tom: 1. Knicks Go, 2. Maxfield, 3. Silver State
Older dirt female
Letruska dominated her division for most of 2021, winning the Apple Blossom Handicap (G1), Ogden Phipps Stakes (G1), Personal Ensign Stakes (G1), and Spinster Stakes (G1). Shedaresthedevil nipped Letruska in the Azeri Stakes (G2) and won the La Troienne Stakes (G1), and Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (G1). Japanese shipper Marche Lorraine pulled off a massive Breeders’ Cup Distaff upset, while Bonny South was second to Letruska in both the Ogden Phipps and Personal Ensign.
Brad: 1. Letruska, 2. Shedaresthedevil, 3. Marche Lorraine
Ed: 1. Letruska, 2. Shedaresthedevil, 3. Marche Lorraine
Laurie: 1. Letruska, 2. Shedaresthedevil, 3. Bonny South
Mark: 1. Letruska, 2. March Lorraine, 3. Shedaresthedevil
Ron: 1. Letruska, 2. Shedaresthedevil, 3. Royal Flag
Tom: 1. Letruska, 2. Bonny South, 3. Shedaresthedevil
Brad: 1. Aloha West, 2. Dr. Schivel, 3. Jackie's Warrior
I legitimately considered five options for the top of this category. True, Aloha West won only one stakes race last year, but it came in the division’s most important event. In a year where no male sprinter won more than one Grade 1 race, I gave my nod to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint hero.
Ed: 1. Golden Pal, 2. Aloha West, 3. Yaupon
I do not vote for horses who do not win in open company. The connections of Jackie’s Warrior put all their eggs in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint basket by targeting races restricted to 3-year-olds as late as September, so Jackie’s Warrior’s egg in the Sprint scrambled his chances of a championship.
Laurie: 1. Jackie's Warrior, 2. Dr. Schivel, 3. Flightline
Jackie’s Warrior and Dr. Schivel each own a Grade 1 victory. However, Jackie's Warrior won at three tracks in separate states while Dr. Schivel spent his time in California. While it's true that Dr. Schivel beat Jackie's Warrior in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, overall, Jackie's Warrior won more stakes. Dr. Schivel was the best sprinter in California until he met up with Flightline. There's no doubting the breathtaking talent of Flightline. As Trevor Denman exclaims, Flightline is "poetry in motion." How poetic? In the last 17 years, only five horses have posted multiple triple-digit figures in the same stratosphere as Flightline. Flightline owns victories against three insubstantial fields: maidens, allowance optional claimers, and a weak edition of the Malibu Stakes (G1). Only one Malibu rival, Dr. Schivel, owned a graded victory. I'm looking forward to seeing what Flightline can do next year.
Mark: 1. Aloha West, 2. Jackie's Warrior, 3. Flightline
Aloha West ran a terrific race in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, defeating Dr. Schivel and Jackie's Warrior in the year's defining sprint race for older males. Jackie's Warrior was impressive all year long, with wins in the Pat Day Mile (G2), Amsterdam (G2), Jerkens Memorial (G1) and Gallant Bob Stakes (G2).
Ron: 1. Flightline, 2. Golden Pal, 3. Jackie's Warrior
This one is as much about the eye test as anything else. In his three afternoon trips to the track, Flightline looked like the best sprinter on any dirt track this year. The argument against him seems to derive from his late arrival as a Grade 1 winner or that his body of work was not deep enough. That would carry weight if another horse had stood out in this division. That was not the case. Flightline had the same number of Grade 1 victories as every other male-sprint contender. Yes, Golden Pal scored his against older horses and did not lose in North America. And yes, Jackie's Warrior answered the bell seemingly everywhere, but he was only 4-for-7 and failed twice as a favorite in sprints this year. I wonder whether Flightline's 118 Beyer would be so high had it come in a race early in 2022 rather than late in 2021, but that is immaterial. Flightline looked – looked – like the best sprinter of the year. Period.
Tom: 1. Dr. Schivel, 2. Aloha West, 3. Jackie's Warrior
I admit to another reluctant vote, this for Bing Crosby winner Dr. Schivel by default. Aloha West nipped him in the Sprint, but that was his lone stakes victory. Jackie's Warrior failed to show on the big day.
Our voters were evenly divided for first place between Ce Ce and Gamine. Ce Ce knocked off Gamine in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Gamine won the Derby City Distaff (G1) and Ballerina Handicap (G1), the latter of which included Ce Ce. Bell’s the One, who received two second-place votes, won the Honorable Miss Handicap (G2) and Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes (G2).
Brad: 1. Gamine, 2. Ce Ce, 3. Bella Sofia
Ed: 1. Ce Ce, 2. Bell’s the One, 3. Bella Sofia
Laurie: 1. Ce Ce, 2. Gamine, 3. Bella Sofia
Mark: 1. Ce Ce, 2. Bell's the One, 3. Gamine
Ron: 1. Gamine, 2. Ce Ce, 3. Bella Sofia
Tom: 1. Gamine, 2. Ce Ce, 3. Bella Sofia
Male turf horse
This is another category that divided our panel. Two first-place votes went to Breeders’ Cup Turf and Jockey Club Derby Invitational winner Yibir. Another two went to another Breeders’ Cup winner, Mile victor Space Blues. Two more were given to Domestic Spending, who dead-heated with Colonel Liam to share a Turf Classic (G1) victory before winning the Manhattan Stakes (G1). Speaking of Colonel Liam, he took three second-place votes after a season that started with a Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational (G1) triumph.
Brad: 1. Yibir, 2. Colonel Liam, 3. Domestic Spending
Ed: 1. Space Blues, 2. Domestic Spending, 3. Yibir
Laurie: 1. Domestic Spending, 2. Colonel Liam, 3. Golden Pal
Mark: 1. Space Blues, 2. Domestic Spending, 3. Yibir
Ron: 1. Domestic Spending, 2. Colonel Liam, 3. Golden Pal
Tom: 1. Yibir, 2. Domestic Spending, 3. Smooth Like Strait
Female turf horse
Brad: 1. Althiqa, 2. War Like Goddess, 3. Santa Barbara
I have a hard time voting for a horse that made only one North American start to finish first in a category when there are other worthy options available. Althiqa made three starts on U.S. soil and won two of the division’s most important races, the Just a Game (G1) and the Diana (G1). Fellow European shipper Santa Barbara won two Grade 1 events. I gave those two and Bill Mott’s star filly War Like Goddess the nod over Breeders’ Cup winner Loves Only You.
Ed: 1. Loves Only You, 2. War Like Goddess, 3. Althiqa
Loves Only You had an incredible fall season, winning both the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf and the Hong Kong Vase. My stance on international horses is once they win a Grade 1 in North America their whole resume becomes germane for voting purposes.
Laurie: 1. Santa Barbara, 2. Althiqa, 3. War Like Goddess
Honorable mention to the spectacular Loves Only You. In retrospect, had I the chance to vote over, War Like Goddess would likely have the nod, despite winning only one Grade 1, since her body of work with four straight victories was the more impressive. But, hey, when I make an error, I own up to it. It was a tough call between Santa Barbara and Althiqa. Both owned a pair of Grade 1 victories. Santa Barbara won the Belmont Oaks Invitational (G1) after a troubled trip and then changed her running style to win the Beverly D. (G1) by a visually impressive three lengths. Althiqa won both starts, beating her stablemate and at shorter distances than Santa Barbara. War Like Goddess won four straight and placed a good third in the Filly & Mare Turf.
Mark: 1. Loves Only You, 2. Althiqa, 3. War Like Goddess
Loves Only You was an impressive winner of the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf, and she backed up that form with Grade 1 wins in the Hong Kong Cup and QE II Cup in Hong Kong and a third in the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1). Althiqa came off the plane and was impressive in reeling off consecutive Grade 1 wins in the Just a Game and Diana. War Like Goddess won four graded stakes in a 4-for-6 campaign, with a Grade 1 win in the Flower Bowl and a narrow third in the Filly & Mare Turf.
Ron: 1. War Like Goddess, 2. Loves Only You, 3. Althiqa
This was the toughest call on the ballot. War Like Goddess' four-race winning streak in graded stakes covering three tracks in a little more than five months is the impression that will not fade. The question was how far to downgrade her because of her half-length loss in the Breeders' Cup. On the same token, does that lift Loves Only You, a three-time Grade/Group 1 winner on two continents? It was almost a coin flip, but I felt War Like Goddess's winning streak was underrated, especially for its durability. It was between Althiqa and Santa Barbara for third; I went with Althiqa in the belief her Grade 1 wins were against tougher competition.
Tom: 1. Loves Only You, 2. War Like Goddess, 3. Althiqa
Loves Only You was given only one North American start, but she sure made it count with a breakthrough triumph for Japan in the Filly & Mare Turf. Her body of work suggested she ranked as a prime contender in the defining Filly & Mare Turf – and she delivered.
Joel Rosario stands to win his first Eclipse Award for outstanding jockey, if our panel is any indication. He enjoyed a career year that included 49 graded-stakes victories, $35.21 million earned, and Breeders’ Cup scores aboard Echo Zulu and Knicks Go. Irad Ortiz Jr., Flavien Prat, and Luis Sáez each earned a pair of second-place votes from our panelists. Ortiz won three Breeders’ Cup races, Prat led all North American jockeys in graded-stakes wins on turf, and Sáez took the prestigious Saratoga riders’ title for the first time.
Brad: 1. Joel Rosario, 2. Luis Sáez, 3. Flavien Prat
Ed: 1. Joel Rosario, 2. Flavien Prat, 3. Luis Sáez
Laurie: 1. Joel Rosario, 2. Irad Ortiz Jr., 3. Paco Lopez
Mark: 1. Joel Rosario, 2. Flavien Prat, 3. Irad Ortiz Jr.
Ron: 1. Joel Rosario, 2. Luis Sáez, 3. Irad Ortiz Jr.
Tom: 1. Joel Rosario, 2. Irad Ortiz, Jr., 3. Luis Sáez
Four of the six votes in this category went to the 2020 winner for outstanding trainer, Brad Cox. He won his first American Classic with Essential Quality, saddled Knicks Go through a likely Horse of the Year campaign, and won Grade 1 races with Juju’s Map, Juliet Foxtrot, Mandaloun and Shedaresthedevil. Todd Pletcher, who received a first-place vote, led all trainers with 35 graded-stakes wins. Steve Asmussen also garnered a first-place vote after a year in which he became North America’s all-time winningest trainer. A second-place vote went to European-based trainer Charlie Appleby, whose runners captured nine Grade 1 races on U.S. and Canadian soil.
Brad: 1. Brad Cox, 2. Todd Pletcher, 3. Steve Asmussen
Ed: 1. Brad Cox, 2. Charlie Appleby, 3. Chad Brown
Laurie: 1. Todd Pletcher, 2. Steve Asmussen, 3. Brad Cox
Mark: 1. Steve Asmussen, 2. Brad Cox, 3. Chad Brown
Ron: 1. Brad Cox, 2. Steve Asmussen, 3. Charlie Appleby
Tom: 1. Brad Cox, 2. Steve Asmussen, 3. Todd Pletcher