It wasn’t a surprise to anyone in horse racing when California’s recent stranglehold on the Horse of the Year Eclipse Award came to an end on Thursday night at the annual awards ceremony at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla.
Last year started with great optimism that the sport had found its next superhorse and marketable star in Arrogate. He soundly defeated California Chrome, a two-time horse-of-the-year winner, in the Pegasus World Cup, and then turned in an unbelievable last-to-first performance to win the Dubai World Cup.
But then the 4-year-old world beater ran into a surface he hated at Del Mar, and lost his last three races. The last of those races was the Breeders’ Cup Classic, where he finished fifth to Gun Runner. And in that race the title of best racehorse in the U.S. was transferred.
Gun Runner picking up the top horse award was no surprise and well deserved. He won five of six races, all graded stakes, and in his only loss finished second to Arrogate in Dubai. On Saturday, as a 5-year-old, he will run his last race as the 4-5 favorite in the $16-million Pegasus World Cup at the same track he was honored at.
“I just like to thank Gun Runner,” Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner’s trainer said. “The memories Gun Runner had allowed us will stay with us.”
Asmussen went on to thank ownership for keeping the horse in training as a 4-year-old, when most great horses are retired after winning a Grade 1 as a 3-year-old.
California Chrome had won the top honor two of the last three years, sandwiched around Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. Both those horses, and Arrogate, were stabled in Southern California.
Now, it’s not that Southern California racing had a terrible year. West Coast, a late developer who didn’t run in a Triple Crown race under the guidance of trainer Bob Baffert, was named top 3-year-old Male. He won the Travers and finished third in the Classic and will also run in Saturday’s Pegasus.
And Abel Tasman, winner of the Kentucky Oaks also for Baffert, was named best 3-year-old Filly.
Jockey Evin Roman, who rides the Southern California circuit, was the easy winner of the Apprentice Jockey award.
Unique Bella, based at Santa Anita for Jerry Hollendorfer, won the best Female Sprinter award and Roy H., locally based with Peter Miller, won best Male Sprinter.
Perhaps the most surprising win was Good Magic beating Santa Anita-based Bolt D’Oro, the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby, for 2-year-old Male horse-of-the-year award.
The Mick Ruis-trained Bolt had a strong year winning his first three races including the FrontRunner Stakes at Santa Anita by almost eight lengths. But a wide and difficult trip in the Juvenile ended his win streak and gave Good Magic his only win in three starts.
Other winners, not from Southern California, were World Approval for Male Turf horse and Lady Eli, who recovered from a near-fatal bout with laminitis, for Female Turf horse. Caledonia Road won for best 2-year-old Filly.
The institutional awards went to Juddmonte Farms for Owner and Clearsky Farms, who was responsible for Arrogate and Abel Tasman, for the Breeder award.
The remaining human awards went to Jose Ortiz for Jockey and Chad Brown for Trainer of the year.