By Bill Finley
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Eclipse Awards, the NTRA is holding a promotion in which fans will be asked to chose the top 10 horses and the top jockey and trainer during the five-decade era. Click here to play.
Here are this writer's picks. It wasn't easy.
- Secretariat: Champion 2-Year-Old Male (1972); Champion 3-Year-Old Male (1973); Champion Male Turf Horse (1973); Horse of the Year (1972, 1973). Could be the best horse who ever lived. What more needs to be said?
- Seattle Slew: Champion 2-Year-Old Male (1976); Champion 3-Year-Old Male (1977); Champion Older Male Horse (1978); Horse of the Year (1977).
Yes, Secretariat is the greatest horse to have raced during the last 50 years, but you can make a strong argument that Seattle Slew was next. From Day One, he was brilliant, a horse who was the total package of speed, stamina and class. He dominated in the Triple Crown, becoming the first undefeated horse to sweep the series. After stubbing his toe and finishing second in the GIII Paterson H. at the Meadowlands, he became the only Triple Crown winner to beat a Triple Crown winner when defeating Affirmed in the 1978 Marlboro Cup H. Not that it matters when t it comes to compiling this particular list, but Seattle Slew went on to become one of the greatest sires of all time.
- Affirmed: Champion 2-Year-Old Male (1977); Champion 3-Year-Old Male (1978); Champion Older Male Horse (1978); Horse of the Year (1978, 1979).
It wasn't just that he won the Triple Crown. To do so, he had to beat, in Alydar, the most formidable opponent any Triple Crown winner has ever faced. Affirmed maintained his form over the course of three campaigns, winning a championship each time. He put an exclamation point on the end of his career when he beat Spectacular Bid in the 1979 GI Jockey Club Gold Cup. It was his 19th stakes win and 14th Grade I win. Should be on everyone's Top 10 list.
- Ruffian: Champion 2-Year-Old Filly (1974); Champion 3-Year-Old Filly (1975).
Will be the only horse to make my Top 10 who was never named Horse of the Year. With Ruffian, you have to make an exception as her career was cut short when she tragically died after breaking down in her 1975 match race with Foolish Pleasure. To that point, she had been so dominant that no horse had ever been in front of her at any call in any of her races. Was undoubtedly one of the most talented horses that ever lived and there's no telling what she would have accomplished had she met a different fate. In a poll conducted by the Associated Press, she was named the top filly of the 20th century.
- Spectacular Bid: Champion 2-Year-Old Male (1978); Champion 3-Year-Old Male 1979); Champion Older Male (1980): Horse of the Year (1980).
Trainer Bud Delp called him “the greatest racehorse to ever look through a bridle.” Generally considered one of the best horses not to win the Triple Crown, his loss in the 1979 Belmont S. does not take away from his many accomplishments on the racetrack. After losing twice as a 2-year-old, he lost just twice more throughout his career, compiling a final record of 26 for 30. One of the losses came against Affirmed, in the 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup. He was so dominant that no one was willing to face him in the 1980 Woodward, a race he won in a walkover in his last start.
Racing was spoiled during the seventies, the first decade of the Eclipse Award era. There was one great horse after another, including three Triple Crown winners and five horses who have made it into this Top 10. It was a golden age for horse racing.
- Forego: Champion Sprinter (1974); Champion Older Male Horse (1974, 1975, 1976, 1977); Horse of the Year (1974, 1975, 1976).
He did things that now seem inconceivable. He won the 1976 GI Marlboro Cup carrying 137 pounds, his furious late drive allowing him to catch Honest Pleasure. He was fast enough to have won twice won the GII Carter H. at seven furlongs, as well as the GII Vosburgh H. at the same distance, yet he also won the Jockey Club Gold Cup back when it was a two-mile race. He won the GI Woodward S. four times. He came a long way from the afterthought who was 28-1 and finished a distant fourth behind Secretariat in the 1973 GI Kentucky Derby.
Since the inception of the Eclipse Awards, is the only horse to be named Horse of the Year three times.
- Cigar: Champion Older Male (1995, 1996); Horse of the Year (1995, 1996).
Was the brightest star of the nineties, a period where there was a dearth of top horses. His 16-race winning streak captivated the sport. He was one of the last remnants of a bygone era, where horses weren't restricted to four or five races a year and accepted all challenges and took on all challengers. Was sent all over the U.S. in pursuit of excellence. Won the first running of the GI Dubai World Cup. What would he have accomplished if his connections didn't run him 11 times on the turf before finally making the switch to the dirt?
- Zenyatta: Champion Older Female (2008, 2009, 2010); Horse of the Year (2010).
When most top horses now race 15 times or so at most during their careers, it is hard to include any modern horses on a list that contains horses like Forego. But while Zenyatta's 20-career starts does not exactly put her on a list of iron horses, she was given more than enough of a chance to prove her greatness. Her come-from-the-clouds running style made her one of the most exciting horses ever and she almost always found a way to get to the wire first. She started off her career with 19 straight wins, setting a record for a top horse, and beat males in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic. She ran until age 6. With horses starting less and less all the time and being retired early, it may be a long time before we see one like her again.
- John Henry: Champion Turf Horse (1980, 1981, 1983, 1984); Champion Older Male (1981); Horse of the Year (1981, 1984).
He was a great story, the son of Ole Bob Bowers who broke his maiden at Jefferson Downs before ending up in claiming races at the Fair Grounds and in New York. But he was so much more than that. Once he got rolling, he became one of the toughest and most versatile horses in decades. He won Grade I's on the grass and dirt and was still racing at a high level at the age of nine. Won 29 stakes and 15 Grade I events.
- American Pharoah: Champion 3-Year-Old Male (2015); Horse of the Year (2015).
He may not be among the 10 most talented horses to have raced since the seventies, but he deserves to make the cut based on his accomplishments. With so many horses having failed along the way, it started to look like winning the Triple Crown was an impossible task. It had gotten to the point where people were calling for changes in the format of the series to make it easier to win. It turns out that all that was needed was for the right horse to come around, one that was talented and durable enough to get through the Triple Crown without having an off day. That he also became the first horse to both win the Triple Crown and the GI Breeders' Cup Classic is still another reason he deserves to be recognized as one of the best of his era.
Honorable Mention: Sunday Silence, Justify, Rachel Alexandra.
Trainer: Wayne Lukas. Since the best days of Lukas's career, the sport has seen plenty of outstanding trainers come along, Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown. But the Lukas who dominated the sport in the eighties and nineties has no equal. The first top trainer to have divisions at a number of racetracks, he revolutionized the sport and developed champion after champion. His stable has produced 28 Eclipse Award winners and three Horses of the Year. Lukas, himself, won four Eclipse Awards as the sport's outstanding trainer, which doesn't seem like nearly enough.
Jockey: Jerry Bailey. This was a tough call between Angel Cordero Jr., the outstanding jockey of the eighties, and Bailey, the outstanding jockey of the nineties. Both were the best of their eras and, among the two, Cordero may have had the more raw talent. The tiebreaker is that Bailey won seven Eclipse Awards, the most ever among jockeys. Cordero won just two.
TDN STAFF BALLOTS:
We asked other staff members and contributors to submit their top 10s, in order. Here's what they said:
Chris McGrath, Columnist: Secretariat, Forego, Spectacular Bid, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Cigar, John Henry, Ruffian, Ghostzapper, Zenyatta. Jockey: Jerry Bailey. Trainer: D. Wayne Lukas
Dan Ross, West Coast Correspondent: Secretariat, Spectacular Bid, Affirmed, Ruffian, Sunday Silence, American Pharoah, Zenyatta, Cigar, Goldikova, Curlin. Jockey: Angel Cordero Jr. Trainer: D. Wayne Lukas.
Sue Finley, Publisher: Secretariat, Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Forego, Ruffian, Cigar, John Henry, Spectacular Bid, Sunday Silence Personal Ensign. Jockey: Angel Cordero Jr. Trainer: D. Wayne Lukas.
Sid Fernando, Columnist: Forego, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Ruffian, John Henry, Spectacular Bid, Zenyatta, American Pharoah, Justify. Jockey Angel Cordero Jr. Trainer: Bob Baffert.
T.D. Thornton, Writer/Reporter: Secretariat, Cigar, Holy Bull, American Pharoah, Ruffian, John Henry, Personal Ensign, Seattle Slew, Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra. Jockey: Laffit Pincay. Trainer: D. Wayne Lukas
Heather Anderson, Associate International Editor: Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, Cigar, Holy Bull, Curlin, Serena's Song, Rachel Alexandra, Beholder, Ruffian, Personal Ensign. Jockey: Laffit Pincay. Trainer: Todd Pletcher.
Christina Bossinakis, Associate Editor: Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Ghostzapper, American Pharoah, Ruffian, Personal Ensign, Cigar, Lady's Secret, Alysheba, Zenyatta. Trainer: D. Wayne Lukas. Jockey: Angel Cordero Jr.