Monday, Jan. 12, 1998 | 5:40 a.m.
ON THURSDAY, winners of the 1997 Eclipse Awards were announced and, for the first time in years, there were more outstanding performers than hardware, with at least five of the unveiled 13 categories worthy of multiple winners.
Although all the equine categories resulted in a sweep, there were some close votes to secure the three segment blocs needed for the award.
Official voting for the Sport of King's equivalent to the Academy Awards is conducted by the members of the Daily Racing Form, which is the industry's newspaper, the Thoroughbred Racing Associations and the National Turf Writers Association.
On Wednesday, however, the second annual Fans' Choice Poll was announced by the Daily Racing Form.
The publication, billed as "America's Turf Authority since 1894, allowed the racing fans of America a chance to voice their opinions of who they think are the sport's best of 1997. And, for the most part, the fans agree with the experts, differing in only one category -- that of top owner of the year -- with the Fans' Poll already on record for Horse of the Year, while the official announcement for the top Eclipse waits until Feb. 10.
The fans voted Robert and Beverly Lewis as the Owner of the Year, based on their Camelot run with Silver Charm in the 1997 Triple Crown series. However, the Eclipse-voting body cast the decision for Carolyn Hine, who campaigned handicap star Skip Away, and her sportsmanship for putting up the supplementary money in Skippy's Breeders' Cup Classic victory.
Otherwise, the office voters concur with the important voters in a somewhat difficult year.
Although some categories for the 1997 Eclipse Awards were subjectively decided, none will be more subjective than the Horse-of-the-Year honor.
Before the Eclipse announcements, there were four realistic possibilities for Horse of the Year. In addition to the Fans' Choice Poll winner Skip Away, others in the Handicap division that drew consideration were Gentlemen and Formal Gold. Of course, Favorite Trick, who garnered the Juvenile title, has a healthy group of backers that say his perfect 1997 racing record is the best of the year.
But, with the vote of Older Male going to Skip Away, eliminating Gentlemen and Formal Gold -- with the impossible assumption that they can get Horse of the Year without carrying their own division title -- that leaves a two-horse race between Skippy and the Trick for the gold trophy.
Here's how the balloting went with the Fans' Choice and Eclipse voters, along with my selection as a member under the National Turf Writers banner:
* 2-Year-Old Female -- Unanimous decision for obviously the best juvenile filly of 1997, Countess Diana. Her five-for-six record was topped off with the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies victory. I concurred.
* 2-Year-Old Male -- Unanimous decision for Favorite Trick who, with a perfect eight-for-eight record capped by a decisive Breeders' Cup Juvenile victory, also has justification for Horse-of-the-Year honors. I concurred.
* 3-Year-Old Filly -- Ajina got this vote by virtue of her Breeders' Cup Distaff victory. I did not agree. The Distaff was arguably the weakest race of Breeders' Cup, and my vote, Blushing K D, beat her by 14 lengths in their only meeting early in the year at Oaklawn in the Fantasy Stakes. K D also amassed a six-for-eight record before she was shelved midsummer.
* 3-Year-Old Male -- Silver Charm fell less than a length from racing immortality, the Triple Crown and Horse-of-the-Year honors with a runner-up in the Belmont Stakes, thus settling for a memorable sophomore crown. I concur.
* 4-Year-Old & Up Female -- Hidden Lake won this title in a four-race New York win streak and was trounced in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. I voted Halo America in a weak division.
* 4-Year-Old & Up Male -- Regional bias and short memories gave Skip Away the title with a super Breeders' Cup Classic performance over a consolation field. Anyone who thinks Skippy could have beaten Formal Gold doesn't share the opinion of Skip Away's trainer Sonny Hine, who was quoted as saying he couldn't beat Formal Gold after that one decisively whipped his horse for the second consecutive time at Belmont in the Woodward. I don't concur. Formal Gold proved his superiority on the track, where it should be decided.
* Sprinter -- Smoke Glacken, who retired midsummer, won this on pure speed figures. Although I voted for Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Elmhurst, this one is a worthy winner. Congratulations go out to local Las Vegas partner, Roxy Roxborough.
* 3-Year-Old Female Turf -- Ryafan, unanimous with a victory sweep of the three most important races in the division -- all Grade I. I concur.
* 3-Year-Old & Up Male Turf -- After capturing Canadian Horse-of-the-Year honors, Chief Bearhart won the Breeders' Cup Turf in an afterthought. With five wins and two seconds of seven turf starts on the year, he deserves it. I concur.
* Steeplechase -- Fans' Choice was spared this category. Lonesome Glory wins as the only multiple Grade I winner over the hurdles. That was good enough for me.
After riding the coattails of Cigar in 1995 and '96, Jerry Bailey won his third consecutive Eclipse with a banner year and earnings of almsot $16 million. I concurred.
Trainer Bob Baffert won the Trainer trophy with his outstanding job of conditioning Silver Charm over Pat Byrne in a close vote. Byrne tutored Juvenile champs Countess Diana and Favorite Trick, and my vote went to him for those accomplishments, although Baffert is certainly a fair trade-off.
Apprentice jockeys Roberto Rosado and Phil Teator split the Eclipse Award for the rookie riders. Both 19-year-olds are recipients of regional overload voting. I voted for J.G. Matos, who had the misfortune of riding in a less Eclipse vote-getting populace of Southern California. Matos has been competitive on the toughest circuit in the nation, while Rosado plied his craft in New Jersey and Teator in New York through the lean winter season. Matos got robbed.
Horse of the Year ... the envelope, please?