Those of you who have read my Eclipse Award voting posts over the past couple of years already know that I believe it’s important to not only take a defensible position in one’s voting, but also to share one’s reasoning behind those votes. In no year is that more important than this year: a year in which Champion three-year-old colt honors are up for grabs amongst a group of three-year-olds where none stood out heads and shoulders above the rest.
As always, you may not agree with all of my opinions. In fact, I hope you don’t. That’s why we vote. If the choices were always clear-cut we’d simply have a selection committee make the decisions. In any case, here goes. And while it is too late to change my votes, I’d still like to hear from you and learn the rationale behind your own selections.
Feel free to message me on Twitter (@donnabbrothers) or leave a comment here to discuss!
FORTE, CAVE ROCK, VICTORIA ROAD
As we go through each category you’ll learn that my first consideration in voting is based on grade/group one wins. Given that Forte had both the most grade one wins of any of his contemporaries and won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at the end of the year, he was an easy choice for me. He was rarely flashy and he never made it look easy, but he got the job done when it counted.
Cave Rock was right behind him in terms of results, although he did flash a level of brilliance that we never really saw from Forte (out of the top eight highest Beyer figures for two-year-olds in 2022, Cave Rock earned four of them). That said, when it really counted—in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), Forte came away with the win and the best Cave Rock could do is beat the rest.
Victoria Road made the most starts of any horse under real consideration in the category and ended his year with a hard-fought win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1). He gets extra credit for competing in three different countries and finishing out the year with four consecutive wins.
WONDER WHEEL, MEDITATE (IRE), AND TELL ME NOLIES
Again I’m giving preference to not only grade 1 wins, but also Breeders’ Cup efforts. Wonder Wheel came into the Breeders’ Cup with solid form (win in the G1 Alcibiades, 2nd in the G1 Spinaway) and then stole the show on Future Stars Friday with her three-length win at odds of 7/2 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1). She also benefitted from a well-timed, masterful ride from jockey Tyler Gaffalione.
Like Victoria Road earlier, Meditate (Ire) competed in three different countries and won in each of those countries (Ireland, Great Britain, and the USA), capping her year with a powerful win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1).
It was pretty wide-open for third honors here but I went with And Tell Me Nolies who had wins in the G1 Del Mar Debutante and the G2 Chandelier. Hoosier Philly may ultimately be the most promising of all of the freshman fillies but her connections intentionally took a conservative approach with her this year so that we can see the best of her next year. I’m looking forward to it.
EPICENTER, TAIBA, MODERN GAMES
It is unlikely that there will be a more contentious or controversial category than this one so I may as well jump right in. Epicenter gets my three-year-old Champion vote because his 2022 body of work was the most impressive of all of the others. Yes, there were others who had a brilliant race and won more grade one races, but there was no other horse this year that was as productive as Epicenter in the races that carry the most weight in the US. He produced a winning effort in the Kentucky Derby (G1), if only to have victory snatched from him in the final strides. He could do no better than 2nd in the Preakness Stakes—a race in which the Derby winner did not compete and he was beaten by a horse that skipped the Derby to run fresh on the third Saturday in May.
Epicenter’s two wins at Saratoga—again, competing against the best horses of his generation—were phenomenal, and his romp in the G1 Travers Stakes was jaw-dropping. It’s unlikely that he would’ve fared well against Flightline in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), even if he had not suffered a career-ending injury in the attempt. But he and his connections, once again, dodged no one. And, aside from the Classic where he was pulled up with the injury, he finished first or second in his seven other starts on the year. I’d say that’s a pretty admirable body of work.
In some respects, I’m punishing Taiba for the poor decision his owner made to take the unconventional path (against the advice of his trainer and bloodstock agent) to go straight from the remarkable win in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) in just his second lifetime start, to the G1 Kentucky Derby. I believe owner Amr Zedan was not putting his horse first and his results in the Kentucky Derby (G1) bear that out. It took Bob Baffert time and clever placing to net the horse’s two subsequent grade one wins and for that I applaud Baffert and have great respect for the horse. But for the most part, he didn’t take on and defeat the same quality of competition that Epicenter did. So, he doesn’t get my Championship vote—at least not for first place.
Modern Games is a warrior and won grade/group one races in three different countries this year. For that alone, I wouldn’t blame some voters for putting him on top in this category. Perhaps that’s what I should’ve done, but this is where my preference for results on dirt versus turf is most exposed. All the same, I will fault no one for putting him on top, or for that matter, Taiba.
NEST, MATAREYA, TUESDAY (IRE)
Not a tough category for me. Nest won three grade one races and was beaten a respectable 3 ¼ lengths in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) against older mares. Matareya won four of her five starts on the year, three of which were graded stakes. Tuesday (Ire) is another remarkable European who won three races in three different countries this year, including two grade/group one races, and finishing the year with a sublime performance in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) against older fillies and mares. Again, showing a bit of a dirt-over-turf bias here since in almost any objective category, aside from surface, Tuesday was more accomplished than Matareya.
OLDER DIRT MALE
FLIGHTLINE, LIFE IS GOOD, COUNTRY GRAMMAR
Not a tough choice and I think few will disagree: Flightline on top. Life Is Good was good—very good. But not good enough to stand up to Flightline. Country Grammar is either a better horse with Frankie Dettori on him, or Dettori has been lucky to pick up the mount on the right days. Either way, I wouldn’t take any chances—I hope Dettori stays on him if they elect to race him in 2023. They can retire together at the end of the year.
OLDER DIRT FEMALE
MALATHAAT, GOODNIGHT OLIVE, CLAIRIERE
Malathaat was good all year and then finished out 2022 with three consecutive grade one wins, including her tenacious effort in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) where she got up to win by a nose. That said, Goodnight Olive was perfect for the year: she was four for four with two grade one wins. Her last win of the year came in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1)—a division she dominated. Clairiere actually defeated Malathaat twice in 2022 but as the year went on the tables turned and Malathaat was the victor in their final two match-ups.
JACKIE’S WARRIOR, JACK CHRISTOPHER, CODY’S WISH
My heart wanted to vote for Cody’s Wish here but alas, my logic would now allow me to place him better than third. Jackie’s Warrior has been a warrior for three straight years but his body of work in 2022 deserves recognition as the best of the best in the Male Sprinter category. Yes, he was defeated in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1), but his effort was still valiant and the third place finish did not overshadow his four graded stakes wins on the year. Jack Christopher is a brilliant (if fragile) horse. I wish we could’ve seen more of him but what we did see was impressive.
Cody’s Wish is the feel-good story of the year and I do hope that the feature story that NBC Sports did on him for the Breeders’ Cup telecast (a story I had nothing to do with) wins an Eclipse Award in that category. For the record, I do not have a vote in the Media Eclipse Awards categories. All the same, his body of work for the year was just a bit sub-par to Jackie’s Warrior and his Breeders’ Cup win came in the BC Dirt Mile which, at least in my book, is not really a sprint.
GOODNIGHT OLIVE, MATAREYA, CARAVEL
Goodnight Olive ran away with the win in the Female Sprinter division—a perfect four for four on the year with a dominant win in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) to cap the year. Matareya was brilliant winning four of her five starts on the year. We just didn’t get enough of her—she made her final start of 2022 in August. Caravel had a very good year but her win in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) was, without question, impressive. It was enough to earn everyone’s respect, but not enough to place her at the top of this division.
MALE TURF HORSE
REBEL’S ROMANCE (IRE), MODERN GAMES (IRE), CASA CREED
Not only did Rebel’s Romance (Ire) run in four different countries in 2022, he won graded/group races in three of them. Finishing his year with a scintillating win in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) likely sealed his fate as North America’s Male Turf Horse Champion.
Fellow Irish bred, Modern Games (Ire) was nearly as magnificent, winning in three different countries and coming away with back-to-back Breeders’ Cup wins. You’ll recall he won last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) and then of course, this year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1).
The third horse in this division was somewhat of a toss-up between Casa Creed, Nation’s Pride (Ire), and Santin but if I’m being totally honest, I’m a big fan of Casamigos tequila and Lee Einsidler’s passion for the sport. So, in an admittedly biased move, Casa Creed gets the nod.
FEMALE TURF HORSE
REGAL GLORY, IN ITALIAN (GB), TUESDAY (IRE)
So much to like about Regal Glory. We don’t often see a six-year-old mare producing efforts at her level, and while she didn’t fire in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) after going wide on both turns, she did produce three grade one wins in 2022. In Italian (GB) was equally outstanding so this was a tough choice. She made seven starts in 2022 with four wins, two second place finishes, and a third—six of those seven starts were in graded stakes races. In the end, it came down to wins at the G1 level. Regal Glory accomplished this three times and In Italian managed it only twice.
Tuesday (Ire) did win the G1 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf but she was hit and miss throughout the year. That said, I give her connections huge props for shipping her to the USA to run in the Breeders’ Cup off of a 6th place finish in the Prix de l’Opera (G1) over very soft ground. This is one of the things I admire most about trainer Aidan O’Brien and many of his owners—they never hesitate to take big chances and are not afraid of getting beat in the process.
STEEPLECHASE HORSE – Vote Abstained
Voting in each of these categories is subjective and influenced by what you know about the circumstances of a particular race or win. Since I don’t pay regular attention to Steeplechase racing, I do not have a level of familiarity with the sport that allows me to make an informed opinion—hence abstention across the board.
Peter Brant; Klaravich Stables Inc.; Godolphin LLC
Voters in this category perpetually vote for whichever owner has the most wins or money earned and if that’s their only measure of success, then fair enough. However, I believe that Peter Brant’s record of success in 2022 deserves special recognition because, while he does win a lot, he’s also not afraid of getting beat—often running multiple entries in the same race, making it nearly impossible to maintain a high win percentage. And yet, his win percentage for 2022 is a remarkable 29.5%. He gets my top vote. And while Godolphin did win the most races and their starters earned the most money, they won at a rate of 19.7% compared to Klaravich’s 24.7%.
Godolphin LLC; Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings LLC; Calumet Farm
This has to go to Godolphin. Their win and WPS (first, second, third place finishes) percentage is a little lower than Stonestreet’s (17% vs. 18% for wins; 45% vs. 48% for WPS) but their earnings tower over Stonestreet’s: $18+ million vs. $13+ million. Calumet has started way more horses than either of my first two selections so their win percentage is significantly lower: 14%. However, they did breed this year’s Kentucky Derby (G1) winner and Rich Strike’s earnings have them very close to Godolphin. Calumet’s total earnings for the year are just shy of $18 million.
Irad Ortiz, Jr.; Joel Rosario; Flavien Prat
In another contentious year among Hall of Fame caliber jockeys, Irad Ortiz, Jr. runs away with the lead in nearly every category. While he’s not afraid to ride a voluminous number of horses, there are two jockeys in the Top 10 leaders in the USA who rode more horses than he did but did not come close to producing the kinds of results Irad Ortiz, Jr. achieved. He was the leading rider in the nation, not only in terms of money won but also by races won, and he maintained a 24% win percentage. Add to that, he broke his own single-season record of money earned ($34,109,019 in 2019) with his horses earning $37,075,772 in 2022. As if that were not enough, he also broke the late Hall of Fame rider, Garrett Gomez’s record of stakes races won in a single season (including graded stakes races)—a record that had stood since 2007.
Rosario and Prat were very close in terms of money earned but Prat had a little bit of an advantage in riding Flightline who earned $4,255,000 on the year—granted that he rode him flawlessly. Honestly, it’s a tough choice between Prat and Rosario for the second spot but the winner in this category is indisputable.
Vicente Del-Cid; Jose Antonio Gomez; Jeiron Barbosa
Full disclosure, I discussed this category with my husband (former horse trainer and bloodstock agent Frank Brothers) at length and we disagreed. So…if you disagree with me, you’re in good company. Frank believed that Gomez’s $7.5 million in earnings should earn him top honors for Champion Apprentice Jockey, while I contend that Del-Cid’s 277 wins on the year are more worthy of Championship status.
Looking even deeper, Del-Cid won races at a 22.2% clip compared to Gomez’s 11.4%. Granted, Gomez was riding on an arguably tougher circuit in New York and Pennsylvania, while Del-Cid was in Louisiana. All the same, Gomez rode more horses than Del-Cid and it was the latter’s win percentage that won my vote.
Barbosa falls right in the middle between the two. His earnings were right at $5.7 million compared to Del-Cid’s $4.8 million but his win percentage was lower—18%. In any event, I like that all three jockeys rode over 1,000 horses this year because it takes a lot of practice before one can get very good at it. However, Del-Cid’s win percentage is impressive—especially for an apprentice—and figuring out how to win is the ultimate goal.
Chad Brown; Todd Pletcher; Bob Baffert
Based on earnings and wins, Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher made this year’s championship for trainers very close. Brown’s horses accumulated $31 million in prize money while “Todd’s Squad” earned $30.3 million. Given the fact that they both run multiple entries in many races, it’s remarkable that they both won at a 33% clip considering in many of the races where they saddled the winner, they also saddled one or more losers. I felt like I was splitting hairs here but gave the nod to Brown since his stable narrowly won the most purse money.
Even though Bob Baffert finished the year 12th on the list in terms of earnings, his horses won at an astounding 44.5% rate. Again, extraordinary considering that he runs multiple entries often—so many times when he wins, he also loses. Asmussen finished the year third in terms of earnings but he saddled a lot more horses than the others here. In fact, double the number of horses that Brown and Pletcher saddled and ten times as many horses as Baffert.
HORSE OF THE YEAR
Flightline, Life Is Good, Rebel’s Romance (Ire)
Not a tough decision for the leader here. While many may not agree with the comparisons that have been made to Secretariat, the fact is the comparisons have been made. Not only was Flightline flawless and dominant in his 2022 races, his two top Beyer Speed figures tower over every other horse in the “main track, more than one mile” category. His top two figs were 126 and 121 compared to the third best Beyer fig in that category: Epicenter’s 112 that he earned in the G1 Travers Stakes.
Life Is Good was sooo good. Just not nearly good enough to beat Flightline—on the track or for Horse of the Year. Rebel’s Romance (Ire) won graded/group races in three different countries, finishing out his year with a brilliant win in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1).
SUBSCRIBE NOW TO GET NEW POSTS FROM DONNA, DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX.
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.
Thank you for sharing your picks, and your reasons for choosing the runners you selected. I might have chosen Taiba over Epicenter, but otherwise I think your choices both make sense and are explained in detail.
Mark Shrager, author, Diane Crump: A Horse Racing Pioneer’s Life in the Saddle
Thanks for taking the time to read the post. I heard from others who would’ve chosen Modern Games over Epicenter and Taiba–definitely the most divisive category we had this year. I enjoyed your book on Diane. She’s quite intrepid and my generation is ever grateful for strong women like her and my own mother.
Taiba and Epicenter could have met in the Travers if NYRA had not carried Baffert’s ridiculous suspension through January. Several Ecliose viters punished Taiba for sitting on the bench during the Travers, without mentioning it was the NYRAs fault.mI wish you had mentioned that racing politics should not prevent the best horses from running against each other in the biggest races!
I actually punished Taiba for his owner Amr Zedan’s decision to run him in the Kentucky Derby off of just 3 starts which set him back. Lots of ifs, right? If he ran in New York. If Zedan hadn’t spent so much of him prematurely… A very good horse, to be sure. But Epicenter got my vote this year.