Looking Ahead to The American Pharoah Show

Winter has finally arrived in the Ohio Valley and snow was blanketing the Twin Spires of my workplace on a Tuesday morning in a mix of melancholy and fortune-telling.

As large snowflakes floated to Earth, I was spending a warm morning in my Churchill Downs office figuring out which horses and humans among the racing stars that were not part of Team American Pharoah would receive year-end honors at the end of the week.

Come late Saturday evening, we’ll know the horses and humans honored as the best of 2015 at Saturday’s 45th annual Eclipse Awards dinner and ceremonies at Florida’s Gulfstream Park. The evening should be enjoyable, but those who thrive on suspense might want to find something else to keep them occupied.

The 2015 Eclipse Awards ceremonies would more fittingly be called “The American Pharoah Show.”

The winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, racing’s first Triple Crown champion since 1978 and runaway winner of the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland, will be brightest of stars by a huge margin. After Saturday, you could shorten American Pharoah’s name to “Champ” as he will sweep every category in which the now 4-year-old colt is a finalist. All of the humans associated with the champ should also be toting individual trophies home after the dinner and ceremonies.

The solid gold Eclipse Award statuette for “Horse of the Year” should be a unanimous triumph among the nearly 93 percent of the 281 eligible voters representing the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters and Daily Racing Form who determined the award-winners. American Pharoah will also be honored as the nation’s champion 3-year-old.

The American Pharoah wave should also bring trainer and three-time Eclipse-winner Bob Baffert, owner and breeder Ahmed Zayat (a finalist in both categories) and jockey Victor Espinoza to the stage to accept individual Eclipses.  There are some finalists in their categories who might have had better overall numbers, but none had better years than those connected to the now-retired phenom and American sports hero.

So now, we’re off to look back on 2015 heroes and ahead to deserving honorees in Saturday’s 2015 Eclipse Awards’ non-American Pharoah categories.

Champion 2-year-old: It’s an easy one here for unbeaten Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Nyquist and the team of owner Reddam Racing, trainer Doug O’Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez that won the 2012 Kentucky Derby with I’ll Have Another. Although it is an easy choice for 2-year-old champion, fellow finalists, Airoforce (winner of Churchill Downs’ Kentucky Jockey Club) and unbeaten Mohaymen could prove better candidates for Kentucky Derby 142 on May 7.

Champion 2-year-old filly: Outside of any of the Pharoah categories, unbeaten Songbird is the easiest and strongest choice among likely Eclipse-winners. Owner Rick Porter has ruled out a bid for the Kentucky Derby by his filly. Had Porter left the Derby door open, Songbird would be favored to beat the boys on the first Saturday in May.

Champion 3-year-old filly: A wide-open division opens the door for European star Found to grab the trophy off one start in the U.S. – a win over Euro champion Golden Horn, winner of the Epsom Derby and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Had I’m A Chatterbox not been disqualified from a win in the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks at Belmont Park, she would be the narrow choice.

Older Male: He lost a few races – including an inexplicably poor run in Churchill Downs’ Grade II Alysheba – but on his best days, trainer Shug McGaughey’s Honor Code was the best of solid division of older stars.

Older Female: The pick here is just as certain and almost as easy as the 2-year-old filly division. Two words: Beholder – Sharpie.

Male Turf: Three wins in six starts as a 7-year-old and a third to Euro stars Found and Golden Horn in the Breeders’ Cup Turf earn a narrow win for Ken and Sarah Ramsey’s veteran. Golden Horn would have gotten the nod had he beaten Found in the BC Turf. But he didn’t.

Female Turf: While Found earned a close and easily-disputable selection in this corner for the Eclipse for 3-year-old filly champ, the pick here is trainer Mark Casse’s Churchill Downs-based Tepin. Robert Masteron’s filly won five of seven races, was unbeaten in four races at a mile and closed out the year with a romp over males in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Keeneland.

Male Sprinter: Breeders’ Cup winner Runhappy, who started his career in winter weather at Turfway Park and concluded the season with a win in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Keeneland, gets the sharpie.

Female Sprinter: Turf-sprinter Lady Shipman had a great year and fell a neck short of catching Mongolian Saturday in a run against males in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. She gets the win in a photo.

Apprentice Jockey: Give Eric Cancel, a son of jockeys, a narrow edge. He rode 101 winners, and his mounts earned $5.3 million. His agent is Hall of Fame jockey and Kentucky Derby-winner Angel Cordero Jr. A close call over Angel Cruz, also a finalist for this honor in 2014.

The thumbnail preview of the Eclipse Awards for racing’s best in 2015: There was little suspense in the year-end awards, but the memories of action on the track are something else. VT