Gary West.

West: Only Thing Clear in 3-Year-Old Male Balloting is It’s Complicated

By Gary West/Special to TVG

We can’t even agree about where there’s disagreement. One voter for the Eclipse Awards said choosing between Medina Spirit and Essential Quality for champion 3-year-old male was one of the most difficult Eclipse decisions he has had to make in years. It was so difficult a couple voters couldn’t decide and said they would wait until the last minute, which will arrive Monday afternoon at 3 o’clock. A few, though, said they had no problem choosing among the candidates, but insisted there were at least three leading candidates, not two, and one voter suggested that anybody whose head hasn’t been buried under a rock for most of the year knows who should be the champion 3-year-old. And so it went — disagreement, indecision, and more disagreement. This must be what it’s like to work at the Capitol.

A few days ago, in an effort to survey opinion, I sent out an email to about 70 media types. I asked them a single question: Which 3-year-old male will you vote to be the Eclipse champion of 2021? I received 54 replies. Five people said they didn’t, or wouldn’t, vote; two indicated they hadn’t yet decided. Two voted for Life Is Good, 20 for Medina Spirit, and 25 for Essential Quality.

I asked the question, in part, because I was curious how the controversy surrounding Medina Spirit and his trainer, Bob Baffert, might affect the voting. Following his victory in the Kentucky Derby (G1), as everyone knows by now, Medina Spirit tested positive for 21 picograms per milliliter of blood or plasma for betamethasone, a corticosteriod that can be used to mitigate joint inflammation, but which Baffert said originated in an ointment being used to treat a skin rash. Kentucky has a “no tolerance” stance on betamethasone; it’s not permitted and can’t be present, even at microscopic levels, on race day. Eight months later, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has not issued a ruling in the case, but Churchill Downs has banned Baffert for two years.

The controversy clearly affected the survey. I can only assume that it affected the Eclipse voting, too, but it’s unclear exactly how. I suspect, though, any resolution would have given voters more confidence.

Medina Spirit and jockey Abel Cedillo win the Grade 3, $100,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Jan. 30, 2021 at Santa Anita Park. © BENOIT PHOTO

For some, as one voter put it, explaining his vote for Essential Quality, the “drug positive figured in a bit.” Another voter explained that she refuses to vote for any horse that has tested positive for any illicit medication. For most voters, though, the situation was, more than anything, frustrating; it mirrored the frustration of 2021, a year that left the sport’s fans perplexed by horse racing’s shortcomings and failures.

“In the absence of a ruling on the Kentucky Derby — something I find inexplicable and inexcusable— I believe I have no choice but to cast a reluctant vote for Medina Spirit,” wrote Tom Pedulla, a longtime turf writer and former president of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters. “As of now, he must be considered the Derby winner. . . . It is not up to me to determine whether Medina Spirit should remain Derby champion despite a post-race test that revealed an overage so miniscule it could not possibly have enhanced performance. It is up to regulators paid to make difficult decisions. To this point, they have abdicated their responsibilities. What a disgrace!”

Randy Moss of NBC Sports, the best television analyst in the business, took a similar approach: “Perhaps Medina Spirit will eventually be disqualified. Or maybe he won’t be. But at the moment I hit ‘send’ on my votes this week, Medina Spirit was still the Derby winner.”

History provides precedence and supplies criteria, and it insists that in most years the Triple Crown defines the division and confers the title. But it wasn’t clear-cut in 2021. Medina Spirit won the Derby and ran third in the Preakness (G1); Essential Quality won the Belmont (G1) and finished fourth in the Derby. Only a few voters pointed out that Essential Quality had a difficult and bumpy overland journey in the Derby and might have been best. Still, voters focused on what the horses accomplished on the track, even if they valued those accomplishments differently.

Donna Brothers, a former jockey and reporter for NBC Sports, said she couldn’t “discredit” or punish a horse for the mistakes of a trainer or his staff. And so she, too, ignored the betamethasone positive and voted for Medina Spirit: “A topical ointment can’t give a horse a bigger heart and this horse had a heart that was bigger than his average-sized body suggested he could contain.”

Nor did anybody question the worthiness of Essential Quality based on the controversy that follows Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The Maktoum family owns Godolphin, which in turn owns Essential Quality and led the sport with $17,265,124 in earnings. Godolphin horses won 22 graded stakes last year, sparkling accomplishments that apparently blind voters to the allegations that Sheikh Mohammed had his daughters Latifa and Shamsa kidnapped and that he threatened his former wife, Princess Haya.

After a routine workout on Dec. 6 at Santa Anita, just a month after he finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), Medina Spirit collapsed and died of a suspected heart attack. He won four stakes in 2021 and finished second in four more. Somebody pointed out that he ran second as often as he won, citing that as a negative. True enough, but Medina Spirit finished second to Knicks Go, who’s going to be Horse of the Year, and twice he ran second to Life Is Good, whose superlative talent will relegate many rivals before he’s done. Never worse than third in his life, Medina Spirit earned $3,520,000 in 2021, or $100,000 more than Essential Quality.

Steven Crist, who covered racing for The New York Times and Daily Racing Form until his retirement in 2016, when he received the Eclipse Award of Merit, put forth a succinct argument: “I will vote for Medina Spirit and believe he is clearly deserving. He ran against Essential Quality twice. . . and finished in front of him both times. Case closed.” Crist was also a member of the Eclipse Award Steering Committee for more than 20 years.

Making the case that it was an outstanding group of 3-year-olds, Larry Collmus, race caller for the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup for NBC, pointed out that Life Is Good and Flightline were both brilliant. Winner of the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1), Life Is Good was in fact the top choice of two voters in the survey. But they didn’t have “the overall body of work,” Collmus said, of Medina Spirit and Essential Quality, who both put together championship credentials. Either would be a worthy champion, or both would, for it’s an accumulation of accomplishments that takes the title.

Champion Essential Quality wins the Grade 1 Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course on Aug. 28, 2021. NYRA Photo.

Still, a voter must choose. And Essential Quality won five graded stakes in 2021, more than any other 3-year-old; that’s the accumulation, a veritable stockpile, that should give him the title, explained Chris Lincoln, host of Racehorse Digest for 16 years. Essential Quality’s “body of work stood out as the most accomplished” among the 3-year-olds, wrote Alicia Hughes, TVG’s indispensable writer and editor.

“Essential Quality maintained a campaign of the highest merit,” wrote the estimable Jay Hovdey, the Blood-Horse national columnist, “and competed with consistency at six different tracks while winning four races of historic significance. I would only argue that he was deprived of a better showing in the Classic by an owner-trainer decision to train him for more than two months when he was clearly a horse who needed more racing.” 

And so nearly half the people who replied to this little survey of opinion said they would vote for Essential Quality as the season’s champion 3-year-old. I suspect he will be as he commences a stallion career without ever having reached his full potential. However the voting goes, whatever the outcome, it will be an appropriate codicil to an unhappy year.