Commentary

Not a wise choice

How can a horse be named Older Male Champion without having run on dirt?

Updated: January 18, 2014, 11:35 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

It's true that there's no guidebook when it comes to voting for the Eclipse Awards, no rules of any kind. But there are historical precedents, dos and don'ts, and the voters have always paid close attention to them. That is until Wise Dan came along.

Wise Dan's selection as champion male grass horse was a no-brainer. You might say the same about him being named Horse of the Year. He's a very good horse and his overall accomplishments in 2013 surpassed those of anyone else.

But Older Male Champion?

At least in 2012, he raced well on the dirt when second in the Stephen Foster and won on a synthetic track when taking the Ben Ali.

Wise Dan was named older male champion for the second straight year. He received 123 votes to 93 for Mucho Macho Man. Game on Dude got 31 and two people voted for Flat Out. Yes, Wise Dan is male. Yes, he is "older," which means he is older than three. But this has traditionally been an award for the best older male dirt horse in America. That's not Wise Dan.

He's a grass horse, and grass horses have their own category, the turf championship. By voting a grass horse the older male champion you have effectively eliminated an entire racing division from an Eclipse category.

With his older male championship for 2013, Wise Dan became the first Eclipse Award winner in this category to not race on the dirt. At least in 2012, he raced well on the dirt when second in the Stephen Foster and won on a synthetic track when taking the Ben Ali. In 2013 his only non-grass start came in the Shadwell Turf Mile, which came off the turf and was run on Keeneland's synthetic Polytrack.

Had there been no championship caliber horses in the male dirt division this one would have been easier to swallow. But there were two. Mucho Macho Man won the Grade 1 Awesome Again and the Breeders' Cup Classic. He got my vote. Though he failed once again in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Game On Dude was a more than worthy champion. He won three Grade I races, the Pacific Classic, the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Santa Anita Handicap. He also took the rich Charles Town Classic. Both Game On Dude and Mucho Macho Man are more deserving older male champions than Wise Dan.

Ironically, voters seem to think differently when it comes to the older female category. As expected, Royal Delta won, even though, for her, she didn't have much of a year. You would think that would lead to some people voting for turf mare Dank, who was 2 for 2 in the U.S., and won the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf. But it didn't happen that way. She got only five votes in the older filly and mare category to 234 for Royal Delta.

There were no major surprises among the voting, but some of the outcomes were more lopsided than they figured to be.

Poor Princess of Sylmar. She had a magnificent year, winning the Kentucky Oaks, Coaching Club, Alabama and the Beldame, yet got whooped by Beholder. Beholder received 207 votes to just 42 for Princess of Sylmar. With Beholder winning a showdown between the two in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, it was the right call.

Poor Princess of Sylmar. She had a magnificent year, winning the Kentucky Oaks, Coaching Club, Alabama and the Beldame, yet got whooped by Beholder.

In the Juvenile Filly category, Ria Antonia got no respect. Despite winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies through disqualification, she got just 10 votes. The award and 212 votes went to She's A Tiger, who was DQ'ed in the Breeders' Cup. The voters apparently don't want Eclipse Awards decided by a decision of the stewards.

They also made a statement that one-race wonders would be penalized. Secret Circle won the Breeders' Cup Sprint, but lost to the ill-fated Points Offthebench, who was euthanized prior to the Breeders' Cup, but had the more complete year of the two. They also didn't reward New Year's Day, who won the Juvenile but nothing else of note. The award went to Hollywood Futurity winner Shared Belief, who, at least, won two stakes on the year.

Typically, some voters insisted on turning their votes into a joke. David Jacobson got a vote for champion trainer and someone voted for a horse named Immortal Eyes for sprint champion despite that horse not winning a single graded stakes all year. Then there was the vote for Brandys Secret for older filly and mare champion. Don't worry, we hadn't heard of her either. She ran in starter allowance races most of the year and finished third in her lone stakes try, in the Claiming Crown.

Having collected another slew of hardware Saturday night, owner Morton Fin and trainer Charlie Lopresti can start to look forward to a 2014 plan for Wise Dan. Hopefully, they will go outside Wise Dan's comfort zone and try at least one major dirt race, like the Whitney, Stephen Foster, the Met Mile or Woodward Stakes. You know, races that the older male champion is supposed to win.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com

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