This year marked the first time that I had an opportunity to vote in the Eclipse Awards. I felt like I had done my research after having watched nearly all of the year's graded stakes races and pondering the candidates' charts.
I had always wondered what instructions the voters were given before their vote. I had spent hours reading columns advocating for Game On Dude over Wise Dan for champion older male, or Beholder over Princess of Sylmar for champion 3-year-old filly. Relatively few, it seemed, held any of the candidates up against a list of provided requirements for an award such as running distance or surface and argued that one horse was a superior fit. It seems to me, that the issue is often made into horse against its competition, rather than the range of candidates against the standards for the category.
That's because, technically speaking, there aren't any standards.
It turns out, voters don't receive any instructions at all other than the age and gender requirements for each category, and a few paragraphs explaining how to log in to the online voting system.
We can refer to historic trends of course (some voters argue that we should treat those trends as gospel) but aren't instructed to do so. My suspicion is that this is because the sport has changed drastically since the awards were instituted in 1971.
As I was flipping through the provided packet of past performances with fewer hours remaining before the voting deadline than I care to admit, I found this more difficult than I'd imagined.
Within a division, how do you rank one horse over another without being subjective? By wins? By surface? Distance? By graded stakes wins or placings? By the regional circuit the horse runs in? By the consistency of their 2013 campaign? By quality of competition (and just how do you determine that objectively?) What about Breeders' Cup success—does it get extra weight over other accomplishments? It's certainly some algorithm of all these things and more, but we aren't being given the formula.
Sometimes, I was judging apples against oranges, and sometimes it seemed like there were oranges who looked a little too much alike. In one category, I came down to two juveniles with the same number of wins and very similar graded stakes records. There just isn't an easy choice there, and frankly the juvenile divisions were not the most difficult ones on the menu.
Non-equine categories are even more of a challenge. Voters are provided with a series of lists for each category, ranking people by overall wins, graded stakes wins, and by earnings. In some cases, being high on this list seems to be the difference between being voted a finalist and not. Gary Stevens, who returned to the saddle in 2013, was in the top three in just one of the four lists provided but made the cut with voters. D. Wayne Lukas was similarly low on the provided lists but was not announced as a finalist for the trainer award, despite being successful on some of racing's biggest days.
What are we to saying when we give out this award? Are we rewarding voluminous achievement or a handful of weightier victories? Which is more impressive—a large stable garnering a huge number of wins, or a tiny one with one star horse collecting graded stakes honors time after time? A newcomer or an established operation? And are we going strictly on the numbers? There's something heartwarming (and a little public relations-friendly) about someone like Mort Fink or Ed Stanco taking a podium to talk about the improbability of their year, but should that really enter into a vote?
It all comes down to opinion, and it always has—not only which horse to choose for a category, but also which standards voters use to make the decision.
There's something fitting in that—after all, if there were one and only one set of standards, a single algorithm for determining one horse's worth over another, we wouldn't be lining up at the betting windows every 30 minutes. It's a difference of opinion that makes a horse race.
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