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Horse Racing: Eclipse Awards reward feats

Sunday, January 05, 2003

By Pohla Smith, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Decisions, decisions ... Voting for the Eclipse Awards is never easy for me. I go back into the past performance records Daily Racing Form provides and compare earnings, numbers of graded stakes wins, number of Grade I wins; make my decision -- and then change my mind a half-dozen times.

But a few of my choices came easier this year-end around.

I knew without even looking at the p.p.'s that I would vote for the just-turned-5-year-old mare Azeri as Horse of the Year. She just kept winning and winning, taking more Grade Is than any other horse in 2002. And when the big money was on the line, she won the Breeders' Cup Distaff, too. That's something the top males 3-and-up did not get done. Obviously, she also was my choice for champion filly or mare 4 and up.

Storm Flag Flying also was a simple choice for 2-year-old filly champion. She not only had a great season, she pulled off a Breeders' Cup victory in a fashion not generally accomplished by 2-year-olds. After she took the lead in the Juvenile Fillies, she relinquished the lead an eighth of a mile from the finish, but she fought back in a long drive to win by a half-length.

A number of 2-year-old colts on both coasts looked like potential champions during the 2002 season, but Vindication blew away the competition in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, leading from gate to wire to win by 2 3/4 lengths. I voted for him for division champion.

My choice for 3-year-old colt champion -- Kentucky Derby-Preakness Stakes winner War Emblem -- may not win. The balloting by members of the National Turf Writers Association, employees of Daily Racing Form and representatives of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association is likely to include support for Medaglia d'Oro. The reasoning to vote for Medaglia d'Oro would be that he was strong all season through the Breeders' Cup, finishing second, but by 6 1/2 lengths, to outsider Volponi in the Classic. War Emblem was injured after the mid-summer Haskell Memorial Invitational and so missed the fall challenges. But to me, any horse that wins two-thirds of the Triple Crown deserves to be his class' champion. Another plus in his favor: He led the nation's horses in earnings with $3,455,000.

Take Charge Lady was next-to-last in the eight-horse Breeders' Cup Distaff, but I thought she had the best season in her division and voted her for 3-year-old filly champion.

The sprint division was a tough one for me, since I'm a huge fan of Xtra Heat. But no horse truly dominated, so I voted for Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Orientate.

The remaining divisions all proved difficult for me, and I went back and forth what seemed a million times before I made my choices in these less glamorous categories. My choices: champion older horse, Evening Attire; male turf horse, With Anticipation; female turf horse, Golden Apples; and steeplechaser, Flat Top.

Two of the five awards for people were easy for me: Trainers Bobby Frankel and Bob Baffert won 117 and 133 races respectively, but Frankel got his with 200 fewer starters and out-earned Baffert, $17.7 million to $12.02. Frankel's sum was just under $100,000 short of D. Wayne Lukas' all-time record. Frankel got my vote despite Baffert's Triple Crown wins with War Emblem.

Sometimes heart and effort have to be considered over numbers, and for that reason I voted Mike Smith champion jockey over Jerry Bailey, who broke his own national earnings record with $22.87 million and blew away all the competition in the money race. But Smith's second and successful attempt to come back from a back injury was one of the best racing stories of the year. He probably won't win, but he got my vote.

I voted for Maryland-based Ryan Fogelsonger for champion apprentice; Edward Evans for outstanding owner; and Juddmonte Farms for outstanding breeder.

Happy birthdays

Monday was Oldies But Goodies Night at Northfield Park as the harness track honored five horses who reached the mandatory retirement age of 15 on Jan. 1 after racing all or most of their 14th years.

Four of them went to post that night for their final starts: Master Shawn, Equitability, Hustlin Kash and Triumphantly. The fifth, Varsity Type, ended his final year earlier after winning 12 races at 14.

Master Shawn and Equitability managed to make their way into the record books on Dec. 12. They finished 1-2 respectively in a $4,000 claimer for the oldest daily double in modern harness racing. It paid $4.80.

Pohla Smith can be reached by e-mail atpsmith@post-gazette.com .

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