My first high-pressure assignment of the New Year: Eclipse Award voting. While it is both an honor and a privilege to have a vote, it’s important to me to get it right. I take none of these categories lightly as an Eclipse Award win (or loss) can mean the world to the people involved.
While I try not to be swayed by what a horse or human connection achieved in years prior or by my fondness for the individual, I’m not sure that I was 100% unbiased this year in one or more of these categories. For the most part my selection criteria is pretty straightforward: achievements in the year of voting at the highest levels of racing (Grade 1 competition).
That said, turf vs. dirt and sprint vs. route achievements are certainly subjective. As are instances in which 3-year-olds beat older horses, even if it was not in Grade 1 competition. Or when a filly or mare beats the boys. I have taken all of these variables into consideration as I considered the Top 3 in each category but these mitigating factors still leave room for discussion and disagreement.
My votes were placed after much consideration and deliberation but it’s ok if you don’t agree with me. That’s why we vote—to achieve consensus. Here are my votes—and my logic behind them. Feel free to message me on Twitter (@donnabbrothers) or leave a comment here to discuss.
2 YEAR OLD MALE
ESSENTIAL QUALITY, JACKIE’S WARRIOR, FIRE AT WILL
Top spot was a pretty easy decision for me this year as ESSENTIAL QUALITY was 3 for 3 with two grade one wins, including a tenacious effort in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. JACKIE’S WARRIOR was ultra impressive all year but may’ve run into innate distance limitations when stretching out to two turns for the first time in the Juvenile. FIRE AT WILL won on dirt (well, slop) and turf, including the G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf.
2 YEAR OLD FILLY
VEQUIST, DAYOUTOFTHEOFFICE, AUNT PEARL (IRE)
Choosing between VEQUIST and DAYOUTOFTHEOFFICE just came down to VEQUIST winning two grade ones, including an impressive performance in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (defeating DAYOUTOFTHEOFFICE by 2 lengths). AUNT PEARL was jaw-droppingly impressive this year going 3 for 3 but all of her wins were on turf and I admittedly have a little bit of a bias to dirt racing.
3 YEAR OLD MALE
AUTHENTIC, TIZ THE LAW, NADAL
What a long year it was for these 3 year olds! There is probably no category of horses that were impacted by the COVID-adjusted racing schedule more profoundly than this group. But, at the end of the day, AUTHENTIC was the cream that rose to the top. Full disclosure: my husband, Frank Brothers, is bloodstock agent for Starlight Racing and was part of the selection team that bought AUTHENTIC for this partnership at the Keeneland September Sale in 2018. However, just to show that I clearly am not smart enough to be biased by this, I did not pick AUTHENTIC to with the Kentucky Derby on our NBC Sports broadcast. I went with TIZ THE LAW. I did not make this same mistake for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Or here.
3 YEAR OLD FILLY
SWISS SKYDIVER, GAMINE, SHEDARESTHEDEVIL
SWISS SKYDIVER’s 2020 record: 10 starts with 5 wins, 2 seconds, 1 third. Five graded stakes wins over five different tracks, including a win against the males of her generation in the G1 Preakness Stakes—defeating my Top 3 year old male choice, AUTHENTIC. Pretty easy choice. All of that said, GAMINE was such an impressive winner of the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint that I wavered. Ultimately, they were both impressive in doing what they did but SWISS SKYDIVER wins War Horse of the year—and Champion 3 Year Old Filly—for me. SHEDARESTHEDEVIL was the icing on the cake that got sire Daredevil (sire of SWISS SKYDIVER too) a first class ticket from Turkey back to Kentucky.
OLDER DIRT MALE
IMPROBABLE, VEKOMA, MAXIMUM SECURITY
It should first be said that I have a personal bias toward two-turn horses versus sprinters—when voting in this category. My favorite win from an older dirt male this year came from WHITMORE when taking the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at age 7. We won’t get much “older” than that in this category but this is not really about your favorite “old” horse and more relative to the older male who most impressed you on dirt throughout the year. For me, that was IMPROBABLE. He came into the Breeders’ Cup Classic with 3 grade one wins on the year and posted a respectable second place finish in the Classic. Poor VEKOMA. He did nothing wrong this year, other than spiking a fever just before Breeders’ Cup. MAXIMUM SECURITY… what can I say? Impressive horse whose race record will forever be called into question.
OLDER DIRT FEMALE
MONOMOY GIRL, SERENGETI EMPRESS, GUARANA
If we disagree on the Top spot here then we think nothing alike and we can’t be friends. Excited we’ll get to see more of MONOMOY GIRL at age 6, especially as impressive as she was at age 5. SERENGETI EMPRESS is another War Horse. She may not win every time but she tries every time (ok, unless she doesn’t make the lead—admittedly, she doesn’t try much then). GUARANA just didn’t get much of a chance to run this year. MALE SPRINTER WHITMORE, CHARLATAN, VEKOMA This is a category in which I’m not sure I was 100% unbiased. I love WHITMORE. I have loved him for a very long time and what he did in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint was one of the few races in 2020 that sent chills down my spine and brought a tear of reverence to my eye. He gets my top vote but if you disagree we can still be friends. CHARLATAN—wow, his win in the G1 Malibu stakes was impressive enough for me to consider him for the top spot here. Ultimately, my heart strings won. And, again, poor VEKOMA. He did nothing wrong this year, other than spiking a fever just before Breeders’ Cup.
GAMINE, SERENGETI EMPRESS, BELL’S THE ONE
With three grade one wins on the year, including the win in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, GAMINE was a pretty easy choice for me. That said, SERENGETI EMPRESS’s performance in the Filly & Mare Sprint was admirable. She was a 4 year old filly making her seventh start of the year and held on for second after setting fractions of :21.3 (first ¼) and :44.1 for the ½ mile. BELL’S THE ONE finished third to these two in the Filly & Mare Sprint but had a strong year with two graded stakes wins.
MALE TURF HORSE
CHANNEL MAKER, ZULU ALPHA, ORDER OF AUSTRALIA (IRE)
If this was just OLDER TURF HORSE rather than MALE Turf Horse I could’ve easily gone for a couple of my FEMALE TURF HORSE selections but it’s not. It is MALE Turf Horse and so the nod goes to CHANNEL MAKER. The girls from Europe beat up on him in the Breeders’ Cup Turf but he had won two consecutive grade ones coming into the race and was the best of the rest in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. 7-year-old ZULU ALPHA was unlucky to miss the Breeders’ Cup due to a minor injury after earning three graded stakes wins in 2020, one of them a G1 win in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational Turf. ORDER OF AUSTRALIA (Ire) only won one G1 this year but it was the right one: the Breeders’ Cup Mile. And he did it from the 14 post.
FEMALE TURF HORSE
MAGICAL (IRE), TARNAWA (IRE), AUDARYA (FR)
Full disclosure, I’m also biased toward North American/US Racing form and accomplishments which illustrates just how impressed I was with the Top 3 choices here. All three of them had the requisite one start in North America (required for consideration for an Eclipse Award) and no more than that. However, MAGICAL racked up three G1 wins before coming to the Breeders’ Cup and two of those wins were against male competition. She came to the Breeders’ Cup off just 21 days rest from the Qipco Champion Stakes (G1) and, of course, shipped from Europe. She was a bit unlucky not to win the Breeders’ Cup Turf but take nothing from the winner, TARNAWA who is my selection for the second spot here. My top vote could’ve easily gone to TARNAWA here too and it was a tough call. Both ladies won three grade one stakes on the year but two of MAGICAL’s were against the boys and TARNAWA only beat the boys once in 2020. AUDARYA earned the third spot with her tenacious win in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf.
HORSE OF THE YEAR
AUTHENTIC, IMPROBABLE, TIZ THE LAW
Some will disagree with me but this simply was not a hard choice for me. In fact, you can pretty much bet that any year that the Kentucky Derby winner comes back to win the Breeders Cup Classic against older horses I’m going to vote them Horse of the Year. AUTHENTIC for me. IMPROBABLE’s three G1 wins and 2nd place finish in the Classic earned him the second spot. TIZ THE LAW, I’m gonna miss you. The Breeders’ Cup Classic didn’t go so well for you but you sure made me love you with your other performances and your sheer class.
MOSCATO (GB), RASHAAN (IRE), SNAP DECISION
No bias in voting here since I honestly don’t follow Steeplechase Racing. However, their respective accomplishments made the voting pretty straightforward and there were only four horses from which to choose.
1st – Spendthrift Farm LLC, MyRaceHorse Stable, Madaket Stables LLC and Starlight Racing; 2nd – Godolphin, LLC; 3rd – Klaravich Stables, Inc.
Again, I do have a bias here in that my husband is bloodstock agent for Starlight Racing and I do a little work for them too. Plus, Jack & Laurie Wolf are just really, really nice people! However, I would’ve put this group in the top spot anyway simply because of their accomplishments with AUTHENTIC. All the same, his 3 wins on the year did propel this group to the leading owner position with his $7,170,000 in earnings so for voters who go strictly by earnings, they will be a top pick for many. In the other two positions I did just that: placement based on earnings.
1st – Peter E. Blum Thoroughbreds, LLC; 2nd – Godolphin; 3rd – WinStar Farm, LLC
In the category of Breeder I did not vote strictly on earnings. Peter E. Blum Thoroughbreds was the mastermind that decided upon the mating that produced AUTHENTIC and so from only 78 starters this year his $8,628,034 ($7.1 million earned by AUTHENTIC) prove that it only takes one really good mating to achieve great things. Godolphin has supported horse racing in Europe, the United States and other countries for years and they had a very good year in 2020 in the U.S. Case in point, only $1.3 million of their $7 million in earnings this year is attributable to Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, ESSENTIAL QUALITY. WinStar Farm also achieved great things from relatively small numbers, earning $9.2 million from 210 starters.
1st – John Velazquez; 2nd – Irad Ortiz, Jr.; 3rd – Joel Rosario
This is another category that I typically vote on based on earnings but I deviated from my modus operandi owing to a couple of Hall of Fame rides by jockey John Velazquez. The first one: his ride on AUTHENTIC in the Kentucky Derby. While this was his first time to ride him (ever!) he sent him away from the starting gate with the perfect amount of encouragement and then, after breaking from the #15 post position (he was #18 but there were three scratches) got him into the first turn in beautiful shape. The give and take that he did with this horse was remarkable and the way he shot away from TIZ THE LAW at just the right time made the difference between winning and losing. Same with GAMINE in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. The way he forced SERENGETI EMPRESS to go really fast if she wanted the lead then gave his filly a breather before going back after the Empress, a phenomenal Hall of Fame ride. And then the Breeders’ Cup Classic. This race, this ride, sealed the deal for me. All of that said, Irad Ortiz, Jr. will win because most people vote straight earnings and he probably deserves it. Joel Rosario was third in earnings this year.
1st – Alexander Crispin; 2nd – Yarmarie L. Correa; 3rd – Luis Cardenas
I almost always vote this category differently than most because for apprentice riders I value races won (experience) over money earned (reward). However, this year I had to split the difference. Apprentice rider Alexander Crispin was second in both earnings and races won, winning just 14 fewer races than Correa, yet grossing $442,640 more in purse earnings so he took the top spot for me. However, I am impressed with what Yarmarie Correa has accomplished this year and, truth be told, I’ll be rooting for her to win the Eclipse Award. Luis Cardenas led the apprentice standings in money earned but his 41 races won doesn’t even put him in the Top 10 of races won by an apprentice.
1st – Steve Asmussen; 2nd – Brad Cox; 3rd – Bob Baffert
Bob Baffert may’ve won most of the right races but Asmussen led the nation in both wins and earnings in 2020. Asmussen: 422 wins; Cox: 216; Baffert: 94. Meanwhile, Brad Cox and Bob Baffert were second and third, respectively, in earnings. This was a pretty easy decision for me.
Donna is one of the most decorated female jockeys of all time. Now retired from race-riding, she is currently an award winning sports analyst and commentator for NBC, and the author of the book, “Inside Track: Insider’s Guide to Horse Racing”, which is now in its second printing. When she’s not on location, or in meetings, you can find her writing, reading, traveling and spending time with her husband Frank and her two dogs.