The 51st Annual Eclipse Awards Recap

On Thursday, the ceremony for the 51st Eclipse Awards was held at Santa Anita, the annual crowning of the champions of the past year that endows the most prestigious honours for equine and human endeavour in the whole of US racing.

It is not a night for surprises but a night for saluting our heroes, and in a blizzard of wide smiles, heartfelt applause and shiny trophies due tribute was paid to the winners in each category. Here we celebrate the deserving recipients of each Eclipse Award, with an overview of what set them apart from their peers during 2021.

KNICKS GO Horse of the Year, Older dirt male

Brad Cox Trainer, Joel Rosario Jockey

It was as inevitable as the outcome of a race in which Knicks Go was out there on the lead, doing it his way, setting a pace and a standard that no other horse could match. As on the racecourse, there were other candidates for glory, but Knicks Go was as dominant in his categories at the Eclipse Awards as he had been at Gulfstream Park, at little Prairie Meadows, at Saratoga, Churchill Downs and Del Mar. In 2021, Knicks Go was the Horse of the Year.

His coronation as older dirt male was a formality behind the biggest prize of them all, which came his way courtesy of a 228-7 voting split. And not only did Knicks Go race his way to Horse of the Year honours, he took his trainer Brad Cox and jockey Joel Rosario along for the ride, with both men garnering an Eclipse Award for a marquee year in their turn.

“He was a true Horse of the Year,” said Cox, who also trained Essential Quality, the Eclipse Award winner in the three-year-old colt division. “It started in January with a win in the Pegasus World Cup and went through November when he won the Breeders’ Cup Classic and sealed his championship.

“It was a tremendous year. He didn’t win the award by default because no-one else had strong credentials – there was a great group of horses this year.”

As Cox attested, Knicks Go stayed out there longer than most and won more than most, going five-for-seven through the year, adding the Grade 1 Whitney, Grade 3 Cornhusker and Grade 3 Lukas Classic to the races already mentioned. The grey son of Paynter was as reliable as the days of the week as long as he had a two-turn race and the lead – it was like a game to him, a game of catch-me-if-you-can, and nothing could.

Hindsight never gets it wrong, but it still seems strange that Knicks Go was only joint-second-favourite for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, with the ten-furlong distance an unknown quantity that many thought might be beyond him. But like a true champion, he went into the unknown and came out on the other side with his head held high, leading all the way as usual, his relentless, almost hypnotic stride carrying him easily through the final furlong for a triumph that sealed Horse of the Year honours before he’d even galloped out.

Knicks Go was by far the biggest contributor to Cox’s stellar year, in which the trainer won a record $31.8m in prize-money and 269 races, with the other highlights being the Belmont Stakes and Travers victories of Essential Quality, and Grade 1 wins with Mandaloun, Shedaresthedevil and Juju’s Map.

Rosario’s year was cut short by a fall in early December, but by then he had compiled a season to remember, winning more money, more stakes and more Graded stakes than any other rider. His other headline acts were fellow Eclipse Award winners Jackie’s Warrior and Echo Zulu, but it is his partnership with Knicks Go that stood out in a crowded field.

Knicks Go has been retired now, and will very soon begin the business of making baby racehorses that might one day run as fast as he. There are many champions every year, but there’s only one Horse of the Year. All rise and show your appreciation for a great horse. Go, Knicks Go, go.

LETRUSKA Older dirt female

Nobody’s perfect. In her biggest test the wonderful Letruska came up short, but that climactic eclipse couldn’t detract from what had come before, couldn’t devalue the currency of a standout campaign.

The Mexican mare has become a real fan favourite both for her romantic back-story and for her brilliance on the track, where her preference to dominate from the front and grind the opposition into submission has reaped a rich harvest. Letruska won six of her eight races during 2021 at six different tracks, taking her career record to 17-for-23, a remarkable statistic of consistency and excellence.

Four of those six wins came at Grade 1 level, with the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park, the Ogden Phipps at Belmont Park and the Personal Ensign at Saratoga followed by arguably her best showing in the Spinster at Keeneland, when Letruska saw off subsequent Breeders’ Cup Distaff runner-up Dunbar Road by a length and three-quarters.

The Distaff was supposed to be her coronation, but she got tangled up in a deadly speed duel and ran herself empty before the home turn. It mattered, but it didn’t matter. Nobody’s perfect, but Letruska is the next best thing.

ESSENTIAL QUALITY Three-year-old colt

He was well named. Essential Quality had precisely what a top-class horse requires, that blend of brilliance, tenacity and consistency that separates the best from the rest. Last year’s champion juvenile colt became this year’s champion three-year-old colt, which is how it should be.

The elegant grey son of Tapit was unfortunate to lose his unbeaten record in the Kentucky Derby, beaten just over a length into fourth after a wide trip throughout, but he bounced back in majestic style. His victories in the Belmont Stakes and the Grade 1 Travers at Saratoga, when he fought tooth and nail in the face of a stern late challenge, elevated him to the status of divisional leader long before the Eclipse Awards were being considered, and a valedictory third place in the Breeders’ Cup Classic behind his Brad Cox-trained barnmate and Horse of the Year Knicks Go stripped none of the lustre from his campaign.

Eight-for-ten lifetime, four Grade 1s, two Eclipse Awards. All the quality you could wish for.

MALATHAAT Three-year-old filly

One of the least complicated decisions the Eclipse Award voters had to contend with was the destiny of the prize for sophomore filly, with Malathaat head and shoulders above the crowd after a superlative year on the track.

The daughter of Curlin went three-for-five through 2021, with all her victories coming at Grade 1 level. She began her haul in the Ashland at Keeneland, completed it in the Alabama at Saratoga, and in between carried off the jewel in the crown of the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs, winning by a neck in the gamest fashion to cement her status at the top of the tree.

Malathaat signed off her campaign with defeat against older horses in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff but, in being beaten just a nose and half a length into third place by longshot Marche Lorraine and Dunbar Road, she arguably ran the best race of her life, an encouraging portent for the future as she will race on in 2022 for owner Shadwell Stable and trainer Todd Pletcher.

CORNICHE Two-year-old colt

It was a year for standout two-year-olds, with no debate necessary when it came to handing out the end-of-term prizes. After all, when a colt goes through the year unbeaten and rounds it off on the biggest stage with victory at the Breeders’ Cup, there’s no need to look any further. Corniche was that superstar, a horse who has never been headed in any of his races.

Yet another from the seemingly inexhaustible production line of brilliance at Bob Baffert’s barn, the Quality Road colt took his first steps when a wide-margin winner of a Del Mar maiden, then made a giant stride to take the Grade 1 American Pharoah at Santa Anita, before going to Del Mar for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile as a strong favourite.

Corniche didn’t disappoint, adopting his customary freewheeling tactics to once again lead at every call on the way to a dominant success by a length and three-quarters. In a year when so many of the headlines involving Baffert were bad news, the emergence of Corniche was a blessed relief for the trainer.

ECHO ZULU Two-year-old filly

There were no doubts regarding the identity of the princess among juvenile fillies, with the outstanding Echo Zulu as dominant in voting as she had been on the track. During an unbeaten four-race campaign, she beat the opposition by an aggregate of 22 lengths and harvested three Grade 1s in scintillating gate-to-wire style.

Echo Zulu is not a big burly filly, but instead epitomises the notion that ‘good things come in small packages’. She put the name of first-crop sire sensation Gun Runner in lights with those performances, beginning with the Spinaway at Saratoga, continuing with the Frizette at Belmont Park, and reaching a climax in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, in which she simply ran right away from her overmatched rivals to score by five and a half lengths from Juju’s Map.

“What a special filly she is,” said trainer Steve Asmussen, who is aiming her at the Kentucky Oaks. “I’m very proud of her, and proud of what she achieved.”

JACKIE’S WARRIOR Male sprinter

Similarly to Letruska, the final act was a letdown but it was the body of work that earned Jackie’s Warrior end-of-year honours, for he barely put a foot wrong before failing to fire in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, with a chipped knee diagnosed as the reason for his eclipse.

He even stretched out to win the Grade 2 Pat Day Mile at Churchill Downs in May, but speed is his long suit and he shone at Saratoga in the summer, winning the Grade 2 Amsterdam by more than seven lengths – not an easy thing to do over just six and a half furlongs – and then reaching his peak in the Grade 1 H Allen Jerkens Memorial, when he took on the outstanding Life Is Good in a whirlwind speed duel and came out on top by a neck.

Perhaps it wasn’t a vintage year for sprinters, but at his best there was nothing that could live with Jackie’s Warrior, who’ll be back to dazzle us again this year.

CE CE Female sprinter

As opposed to her male counterpart Jackie’s Warrior, it was Ce Ce’s performance at the Breeders’ Cup that clinched divisional honours for the Michael McCarthy-trained mare.

The distaff speed division wasn’t strong in 2021, and Ce Ce had left her mark on it long before she arrived at Del Mar, winning the Grade 2 Princess Rooney Invitational at Gulfstream Park in July and adding the Grade 3 Chillingworth in dominant fashion at Santa Anita in October. She was still only third choice in a field of five for the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, but as the hot favourite Gamine waned it was Ce Ce who took advantage, bounding away to win by two and a half lengths.

The thoroughly professional and admirable daughter of Elusive Quality has been kept in training for 2022, and the retirement of Gamine can leave the way clear for Ce Ce to enjoy another lucrative campaign.

YIBIR Male turf horse

Things can be added to a horse to improve performance – blinkers, a hood, Lasix – but sometimes subtraction is the best method. Yibir was nothing special until he was gelded, and then he became a winning machine. His loss has been his gain.

The son of supersire Dubawi won’t be contributing to the breed, but in 2021 he contributed plenty to the racecourse and to trainer Charlie Appleby, who campaigned him on a typically bold trajectory. Victory in a Group 2 in Britain preceded a blockbusting performance in the Jockey Club Derby at Belmont Park on his first visit to the US, and then Yibir returned to reproduce his trademark swoop around the turn and relentless stretch run in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Del Mar, reeling in Broome to win by half a length.

That marked his breakthrough at Grade 1 level, and there is likely to be plenty more where that came from given that his future is restricted to the racetrack. A shame for Yibir, perhaps, but what a prospect for us.

LOVES ONLY YOU Female turf horse

Sometimes one is enough. Her fellow Eclipse Award winners compiled prolific winning records, but Loves Only You needed just one race, one victory, to capture hearts and minds – and the appreciation of an entire country.

The five-year-old mare had already demonstrated her ability in other jurisdictions, but when she had her passport stamped at Del Mar she had more than a race to win, she had a nation to honour. No Japanese-trained horse had ever won at the Breeders’ Cup, but few had come with the class of this daughter of Deep Impact. And not only did she end that long wait but she did so in thrilling style, dashing between horses in deep stretch to win the Filly & Mare Turf by half a length, her superiority plain to see despite the narrow margin of victory.

“I’d like to say thank you to my horse,” said trainer Yoshito Yahagi. “She did a great job. It’s a dream come true for the Japanese racing industry.”

THE MEAN QUEEN Steeplechase horse

This ex-Irish mare has taken the jumping scene by storm since her arrival Stateside, winning five of her six races – she was a clear leader in the exception but ducked away and ran off the course in the final furlong.

In seeming atonement for that escapade, The Mean Queen finished her campaign with three straight Grade 1 wins at Saratoga, Belmont Park and Far Hills, completing the hat-trick with a narrow defeat of Snap Decision in the Grand National Hurdle. She may bid to follow in the hoofprints of US champion Flatterer by running at the enormously prestigious Cheltenham Festival – the ‘Breeders’ Cup of the jumping game’ – in Britain in 2023. Her trainer Keri Brion was once assistant to Flatterer’s trainer Jonathan Sheppard.

JESSICA PYFER Apprentice jockey

There is much more to Jessica Pyfer than her skill in the saddle – she has a degree in political science – but her brilliance on the racecourse made her an overwhelming choice for an Eclipse Award. She became the third female rider to win the apprentices’ award, following Rosemary Homeister and Emma-Jayne Wilson.

Pyfer rode her first winner in October 2020 and came quickly to the fore last year, riding 56 winners as an apprentice – 59 in all – and amassing earnings of more than $2.8 million, topping the standings for money won. Those 59 winners included a four-timer at Santa Anita in May, believed to be a record for a female apprentice in California.

GODOLPHIN Owner, Breeder

Godolphin has been winning major races and changing perspectives across the world for more than 25 years, but Sheikh Mohammed’s racing empire has probably never had a more successful campaign.

Leaving aside for a moment all the glory in Europe with multiple Group 1 winners Adayar and Hurricane Lane, the ‘boys in blue’ were represented in the US by two Eclipse Award winners in Essential Quality (Belmont, Travers) and Yibir (BC Turf), as well as two more Breeders’ Cup winners (Modern Games, Juvenile Turf; Space Blues, Mile) and fellow Grade 1 winners Maxfield (Clark) and Althiqa (Just A Game, Diana).

Add Dubai World Cup winner Mystic Guide and Canadian Grade 1 winners Walton Street, Wild Beauty and Albahr, and the Eclipse Award for leading owner was a formality. The leading breeder award? Every one of the horses named is a homebred. Another formality, to reward a year of almost unparalleled dominance.

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