Performance, not cherry-picking, should decide Eclipse Awards

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DECLAN'S MOON SOON could be crowned the most overrated racehorse in America.

The Eclipse Award finalists will be announced today and the winners Jan. 24. The Eclipse Awards, of course, represent horse racing's championships. But they also represent an opportunity to discourage the cowering opportunism and the premature retirements that have compromised competition, as well as the sport's popularity, in recent years.

That's one reason Declan's Moon, a Maryland-bred, didn't get the vote as champion 2-year-old from this corner. And it's why this vote didn't go to Pico Central as champion sprinter, or to Sightseek as champion mare or to Smarty Jones as Horse of the Year.

The campaign of Declan's Moon was a tribute to cherry-picking. Unbeaten in four outings, he never raced outside Southern California. In a four-horse field, while enjoying a bug-in-a-rug trip along what appeared to be the best part of the surface, he won the Del Mar Futurity. And then his connections made the decision to skip the Breeders' Cup Juvenile - skip, in other words, the title match - and remain comfortably home.

Declan's Moon then defeated a modest field in the Hollywood Prevue and followed with a victory in the Hollywood Futurity over Wilko and Proud Accolade. But Wilko, who had won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, wasn't at his best for the Futurity. Because of a problem that surfaced only days before the race, he ran with a patch on his left foot and had a troubled trip, finishing third. And Proud Accolade, who had won the Champagne in early October, continued a meltdown that had begun weeks earlier and finished fifth. Their problems left the winner's circle open for Declan's Moon, who finished a length ahead of Giacomo, a horse of modest accomplishments. That wasn't a championship campaign.

Reason insists Afleet Alex was the true champion juvenile of 2004. Reason, of course, is like New Jersey, a place people seldom visit but frequently leave. And in the voting for the Eclipse Awards, Afleet Alex might be left behind.

But he accomplished much more than Declan's Moon. Rather than avoid competition by staying home, Afleet Alex traveled from Delaware to Saratoga to Belmont and to Lone Star Park. That's the kind of campaign that should be encouraged with a championship.

He won four of six races, including two major stakes, but might have been unbeaten with a modicum of racing luck. He finished second in the Champagne despite having to alter course in the stretch. And, although second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he raced wide around both turns and was clearly best. His Juvenile was at least as impressive as the winner's performance in the Hollywood Futurity. And Afleet Alex's victories in the Sanford and Hopeful trumped anything else on the resume of Declan's Moon.

But Declan's Moon probably will win the title, and his victory will be, to borrow a phrase from George Orwell, a smelly little orthodoxy of thought. In the run-up to the Futurity, Hollywood Park's publicity department did a masterful job of convincing nearly everyone that the race was for a championship. Repeatedly expressed but never questioned, that view seems to have gained wide acceptance.

Similarly, many people no doubt voted for Pico Central as the champion sprinter. But, like Declan's Moon, Pico Central became a cherry-picker. He skipped the Breeders' Cup Sprint to remain in New York - where he was unbeaten - for the Cigar Mile. When the Cigar exploded in his face, he finished third.

Speightstown, on the other hand, had the championship season, taking stakes in Florida, Kentucky and New York before winning the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Lone Star.

Sightseek and her connections also surrendered any claim they might have had to a title by skipping the Breeders' Cup Distaff.

Azeri should win her third consecutive championship. And Ghostzapper, whose victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic was one of the best performances in the history of the event, should be Horse of the Year over Smarty Jones, whose early retirement became an insult to the sport and its fans.

Steve Asmussen, who this year became the only trainer to win more than 500 races in a season, once said the reason he loves horse racing is that it's not figure skating. In other words, he loves horse racing because judges and voters don't determine the winners.

Voters do, however, determine the Eclipse winners. And because of that, the awards might never have the credibility of the finish line. But they can have a profoundly positive effect, and ultimately more credibility, if they encourage participation in the sport's championship event and the sort of aggressive campaigns that are healthy for the game.

Gary West covers horse racing for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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