The Outside Rail

Abstain, abstain, abstain.

If you’re paying attention to Eclipse Award votes this time of year, you’ll read that a lot. Voters and other interested racing fans will post their ballots for Thoroughbred racing’s annual championships and many will decline to vote in the champion steeplechaser category (instead typing Abstain in the first, second and third choice boxes). Not everyone, but many. The abstentions topped 40 individual voters in each of the past three years and will likely do so again this time around.

And that’s a shame. The Thoroughbreds who jump fences deserve the same attention as the 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, older horses, owners, trainers, jockeys and breeders. Voters say they don’t know the horses well enough or didn’t see enough jump racing to make educated decisions.

I get it, kind of. Voters don’t see many jump races a year. Fine. Admit that, then try to make a good decision. Nothing should prevent people from assessing the candidates and making a decision in any category. I didn’t see every Eclipse candidate run live, but I study the past performances given to all voters, search my memory bank, argue with friends and family and make decisions. Like all opinions, they’re debatable but they’re educated and made with care. That’s all anyone expects, and that’s how voters should approach the jumpers. Look at the PPs, watch some video if that’s you’re thing (three of the five Grade 1 jump races in 2017 occurred at NYRA tracks with free replays available and the other two races are available for free on nationalsteeplechase.com), ask for help if you want to and make a decision. It’ll be OK, I promise.

Expecially this year. There’s no wrong answer. The voting should boil down to three cool horses – four if you want to have some fun. In alphabetical order…

All The Way Jose. The Pennsylvania-bred won two of seven starts (with a second and two thirds) for Buttonwood Farm and trainer Jonathan Sheppard in 2017. More importantly, the son of Senor Swinger completed a comeback from two operations to correct a breathing problem. He started the year in the handicap hurdle ranks, losing twice to extend his failure streak to nine races. Back in a handicap at Fair Hill in May, he stopped the skid in a big way – winning by 15 lengths. The win sent the 2014 novice hurdle champion back to stakes races and he closed the year with four starts in Grade 1 company. In the first, at Saratoga, he parted company with jockey Keri Brion while in the midst of a position-changing move with about 6 furlongs to go. Darren Nagle replaced Brion in the New York Turf Writers Cup and All The Way Jose finished third behind Diplomat and Modem. In the Lonesome Glory at Belmont Park in September, Nagle put the then 7-year-old closer to the pace early and delivered signature win over Modem and Swansea Mile. October’s $400,000 Grand National came next and All The Way Jose ran another winning race only to finish third – beaten a head by Mr. Hot Stuff and a nose by Modem in the race of the year.

Mr. Hot Stuff. Leave it to an 11-year-old to step forward in the year’s best and most valuable race. Fifteenth behind Mine That Bird in the 2009 Kentucky Derby, Mr. Hot Stuff opened 2017 with four consecutive losses – behind Scorpiancer twice, Diplomat and All The Way Jose – before prevailing in October’s 2 5/8-mile Grand National. Trained by Jack Fisher for Gill Johnston, the son of Tiznow sat close to the pace throughout and dug in late to deny Modem and All The Way Jose in a three-way photo. Irishman Danny Mullins was aboard as Mr. Hot Stuff won for the sixth time in 16 starts over hurdles. He led all jumpers in 2017 earnings with $251,000, despite starting out with a third in the Temple Gwathmey in April, pulling up in the Iroquois in May, finishing a dull seventh in the Turf Writers and settling for fifth in the Lonesome Glory. The hills and the jumping at Far Hills agreed with Mr. Hot Stuff, who was bred in Kentucky by WinStar Farm, sold for $200,000 as a yearling and raced (on the flat) for trainer Eoin Harty in California before switching disciplines in 2011. The full-brother to Colonel John won just once for his prior connections but finished third in the Santa Anita Derby and Sham Stakes. If Mr. Hot Stuff wins the vote, he will be the oldest Eclipse Award winner since 1999 – when Lonesome Glory won the crown (also at 11). 

Watch Mr. Hot Stuff win the Grand National at Far Hills. No, really, watch it. It's incredible.

Scorpiancer. Unbeaten in two starts, the Irish-bred looked ready to run away with the championship race in May but went to the sidelines with a tendon injury and missed the rest of the year. Trained by Jack Fisher for Bruton Street-US, the now 9-year-old started the year with a win over Portrade and Mr. Hot Stuff in the Gwathmey at Middleburg Spring in April. Next out, in the Grade 1 Iroquois, Scorpiancer outdid five rivals while winning by 16 lengths in a total rout. Scorpiancer won a Grade 1 in 2016, but also finished second four times and couldn’t handle eventual champion Rawnaq in the Grand National. Everything was going to be different in 2017. After the two wins, Scorpiancer instead missed the summer and fall seasons and risks being overshadowed by the others with longer campaigns. Still, the son of Scorpion defeated Mr. Hot Stuff twice and is the only unbeaten candidate.

That’s three horses, each with a single Grade 1 win. Diplomat and Swansea Mile also won single Grade 1 stakes but failed to step forward in other opportunities and are the likely first cuts. At least they were on my worksheet.

The most difficult-to-toss horse was Modem. The English-bred Irish import came over in time for the three major summer races at Saratoga and Belmont, all handicaps. The conditions, and his Irish form, made Modem the top weight in the A.P. Smithwick Memorial, Turf Writers and Lonesome Glory. Each time, he gave away pounds to capable rivals and each time he finished second – to Swansea Mile, Diplomat and All The Way Jose. In the weight-for-age Grand National, Modem (like all starters) carried 156 pounds and produced his best race of the season. But he finished second again, this time to Mr. Hot Stuff. The then 7-year-old Motivator gelding, who raced for Jessica Harrington in Ireland, won over the chase course at Ballinrobe in May before coming to the United States for Bob Kinsley and trainer Elizabeth Voss. No U.S.-based steeplechaser was more consistent over an extended period. Modem won’t win an Eclipse Award, but should – symbolically at least – finish second in the voting.

And there you have it, the list of three (four) major candidates for the 2017 Eclipse Award as champion steeplechaser. If you’re still voting, mull it over. If you’re not, just admire them. They’re older geldings, still competing honorably on the biggest stages of their sport. Just as the Eclipse vote will have its share of abstentions, it’ll have a few calls to create a committee to choose the steeplechase division. I don’t know. Again, I get it, it’s unfamiliar. But that shouldn’t stop voters from voting. Take a moment, get familiar for a half-hour or so, make a choice and turn the page to the next category. If you do that, you’ll be right even if your choice doesn’t win.

For the record, I went with Mr. Hot Stuff – mainly for stepping up on the biggest stage after a long campaign – but could have gone Scorpiancer . . . or All The Way Jose . . . or even Modem.