By Mike Farrell
It was a wild and wacky Breeders’ Cup. It’s all over except for the counting, as in the Eclipse Awards.
One of the founders’ goals for the Breeders’ Cup was the creation of season-ending championships to clarify the division leaders and ultimately Horse of the Year.
Before the first Cup in 1984, Eclipse voting was a matter of opinion rife with regional bias. The voting blocs in New York, Kentucky and California often supported the horses who ran in the regions at the expense of worthy contenders who competed elsewhere.
The Cup solved that by bringing the best together for one day (now expanded to two days) of head-to-head competition. May the best horse win and carry off the Eclipse trophy.
The Breeders’ Cup has been a certified success in sorting out the champions. And this year should not be an exception for the biggest prize. Who other than Knicks Go deserves Horse of the Year after the overpowering victory in the Classic (G1)?
The field of legitimate HOY contenders had been winnowed heading into Saturday. While the focus centered on the Classic, there was one other candidate on the card: Letruska in the Distaff (G1). The mare was brilliant all season, winning six graded stakes at six different venues. As old racetrack expression goes, she didn’t have to carry her racetrack with her. Letruska was game and honest, wherever she ran.
Unfortunately, the Distaff dashed her HOY chances. She faded in the lane, a victim of an impossibly fast pace. All is not lost. She should take home the Eclipse as Champion Older Mare.
Letruska’s Horse of the Year prospects also hinged on chaos in the Classic, a race dissolving with little rhyme or reason.
That didn’t happen. Knicks Go blasted to front as usual and once again took no prisoners. What a remarkable conclusion to a dazzling season with additional Grade 1 triumphs in the Pegasus World Cup and the Whitney.
Some will quibble (it wouldn’t be a racing column with some quibbling) that Knicks Go was served up the Classic on a silver platter. The anticipated early pressure from Art Collector or Medina Spirit never materialized. Knicks Go was all alone on the engine, motoring along with his usual high cruising speed.
Regular readers of this column will recall that I was, and remain, a big fan of Essential Quality. I thought he had the edge in the 1 ¼-mile Classic over stablemate Knicks Go. Essential Quality is a proven stayer as demonstrated by his victories in the Belmont Stakes (G1) and the Travers (G1). In contrast, Knicks Go had never gone this far in his career.
Speed was the equalizer, and it carried Knicks Go to a worthy championship victory.
Who’s the 3-year-old male champion?
And then there was the race within the race. The three leading 3-year-olds — Essential Quality, Medina Spirit and Hot Rod Charlie — assembled to challenge Knicks Go. A win by any member of that trio would have put him in position to claim Horse of the Year.
That didn’t happen but there was still the 3-Year-Old title to be decided. Things aren’t as clear as you would normally expect in this abnormal season.
Medina Spirit got second but can’t be considered a lock for the Eclipse. There is still that matter of the medication positive after his Kentucky Derby (G1) win and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission still hasn’t issued a ruling. It is possible Medina Spirit will forfeit his Derby win, joining Dancer’s Image in that ignominious circle of Derby winner’s disqualified because of drug positives.
That pending decision — and we still don’t have a timetable for resolution — has hung like a black cloud over the sport and trainer Bob Baffert since May. Medina Spirit has given an honest effort every time out there this year, including a win against older runners in the Awesome Again (G1). Without the drug issue, the second-place finish in the Classic would have nailed down the sophomore title.
What can’t be known is how the voters will react. They might penalize Medina Spirit for Baffert’s treatment of medication rules as mere suggestions rather than absolute codes of conduct. The sins of the trainer could be visited on the horse who potentially stands to lose a Derby victory and an Eclipse Award.