What a year in horseracing! American Pharoah took the country on a ride of a lifetime. His historic racing career came to an end after the Breeders’ Cup and the final chapter of the history book was closed on Saturday, January 16, 2016 at the 45th Annual Eclipse Awards held at Gulfstream Park in Florida. It was Pharoah’s night and rightfully so.
It’s no surprise that the impressive champion received a unanimous vote for Horse of the Year. It’s also no surprise that American Pharoah was awarded 3-year old champion as well. The accolades showered down on Pharoah and his connections all night long.
American Pharoah had the interest of die-hard horseplayers long before he became a celebrity, long before America took notice, and long before the casual horseplayer bought a $2 ticket on American Pharoah for a souvenir.
Under the skilled guidance of Bob Baffert, and a well-planned campaign, the Zayat family insisted that American Pharoah become the horse for the people, and the sturdy champion mugged for all the cameras.
The Zayat family picked up several Eclipse Awards including Owners of the Year, Breeder of the Year and American Pharoah picked up Moment of the Year for the winning the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, dubbed the “Grand Slam.”
Zayat Stables won Breeder of the Year honors with much thanks going to their lead stallion Pioneer of the Nile who sired American Pharoah. Kenneth Ramsey took the podium to accept the award for older Turf Male Champion, Big Blue Kitten, but did not leave the podium without acknowledging the Zayats’ accomplishments with American Pharoah. Very gracious of him. To note, Big Blue Kitten was a go-to horse for money in the bank. He hit the board in all of his starts in 2015.
No surprise also that Pharoah’s trainer, Bob Baffert, won for Trainer of the Year. Baffert made Pharoah available to the public per the owners’ wishes but also was very guarded with his exceptional 3-year old early in Pharoah’s career. Baffert provided the most entertaining part of the night when Jerry Bailey handed him the Eclipse Award and Baffert fumbled the award and dropped it on the floor of the stage. The blame should be placed squarely (or triangularly) on Bailey who was wearing a Cheese Head and watching the Green Bay Packers game at the same time he was presenting the award. Baffert’s wife retrieved the award and handed it to son, Brody, who cradle it like it was a squirming puppy.
The only person missing from the connections of American Pharoah was his jockey, Victor Espinoza. Undeniably, Espinoza had the year that jockeys dream about. It’s the type of year that makes young jockeys get up early and hustle on the backside trying to pick up mounts for top trainers. Espinoza not only guide California Chrome, but had the mount in all of Pharoah’s winnings races. Espinoza lost the Jockey of the Year vote to Javier Castellano, who took home a 3-peat as Jockey of the Year. Castellano is one of the best riders in the country. He ended 2015 with $28 million in earnings, 17 Grade 1 wins, and also guided top horses like Honor Code and Liam’s Map to the winner’s circle. Espinoza may have rode THE horse of the year, but Castellano rode more graded stakes winners than any other jockey in 2015. Castellano impresses me every year with his well-planned speech and gracious acceptance. He is class act, on and off the track. Basically, if I had a horse with potential to be great, I’d want Castellano on it.
Moving on to some of the other awards presented:
Three-year old filly of the year went to Stellar Wind, the daughter of Curlin. Stellar Wind is trained by John Sadler and guided by Victor Espinoza.
Older champions went to Honor Code and the incomparable, Beholder. Gary Mandella has a soft spot for Beholder as do we all. She won the Pacific Classic over the boys and she is truly a horse you cannot forget.
Runhappy received the Male sprinter of the year. Runhappy first ran with one intention: to run fast, and to run happy. It was interesting to watch the horse’s progression and maturity along his 2015 campaign. Once Runhappy became a more disciplined horse, his victory in the Breeders’ Cup was inevitable. This is a horse to keep on the radar, if the connections can stop the squabbling and do what’s best for the horse.
Female Sprinter of the Year belonged to La Verdad. She is trained by Linda Rice and owned by Sheila Rosenblum of Lady Sheila Stables who took the stage and gushed about La Verdad. These women reminded us that the representation of female owners and trainers is minimal in this industry but growing every day. La Verdad was ridden to by Jose Ortiz.
Tepin collected the award for female Turf Sprinter of the Year by winning several Grade 1 races including the Breeders’ Cup mile. Tepin is trained by Mark Casse and retained the turf talents of jockey Julien Leparoux for all of her mounts.
Apprentice Jockey of the Year went to Tyler Gaffalione. The young 21-year old rider capped off 2015 with 182 wins and $5 million in earnings. He rides mainly in Florida but it won’t take long before the talented young rider moves his tack to other tracks.
The Kentucky Derby watch turns to the 2-year old champions of 2015, Nyquist and Songbird. Both 2-year old sensations are undefeated in their young campaigns. Nyquist is currently leading the points list on the road to Kentucky. Trainer Doug O’Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez hope to have another Derby hopeful after Triple Crown hopeful, I’ll Have Another, was unfortunately retired after the Preakness in 2012 due to a tendon injury. The strength of these connections continues in Nyquist. Reddam Racing has stuck with O’Neill and Guitierrez and if Nyquist can stay healthy and have a calculated plan for the next four months, he is definitely the favorite going into the 2016 Run for the Roses. Songbird is undefeated in four starts and is trained by Jerry Hollendorfer and ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith.
That wraps up the best of 2015. Will 2016 bring us another Triple Crown winner? It’s really too soon to tell, but you can count on the Sport of Kings to always provide chills, thrills, twists and triumphs.