Steeplechase Eclipse voting guide

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I don’t endorse candidates, but if you’re a voter make sure you go to the poll. Every year, many Eclipse voters abstain from the jump category – using the excuse that they don’t know enough to make an educated decision. Well, get educated. Read up, study some video, look at the past performances and make a decision. Or read this. And if you aren’t a voter, read anyway and understand the work that goes into the process.

The race comes down to two horses – Demonstrative and Pierrot Lunaire (alphabetical order). Nobody else should get a first-place vote. Each horse earned more than $200,000 on the year – the only steeplechasers to do so. Each won two Grade 1 stakes – the only steeplechasers to do so. Each turned in two of the best efforts of the year – Demonstrative in the season-ending Colonial Cup in November, Pierrot Lunaire in the Grand National in November. Vote for either. They’re both deserving. You really can’t be wrong.

But it’s fun to look at the facts…

– Both were born in Kentucky, but raced in Europe before returning to the United States to race over jumps. Pierrot Lunaire was bred by Skymarc Farm and raced on the flat in France. Sold as a potential steeplechaser, he won twice while in the barn of top English trainer Paul Nicholls, then sold privately to American owner Calvin Houghland. The son of War Chant won his American debut in a Grade 1 shocker in the 2009 Iroquois – defeating Good Night Shirt with a huge stretch rally. Demonstrative was bred by Gainsborough Farm, and went to England to race for trainer Mark Johnston and Sheikh Hamdan. He won once, going 7 furlongs on the all-weather at Southwell in February 2010, his 3-year-old season. By summer, the son of Elusive Quality was on the block and sold to Jacqueline Ohrstrom and trainer Richard Valentine at the Tattersalls July Sale. By October, he was an American steeplechaser and by November he was champion 3-year-old.

– They struggled at the start of 2012. Demonstrative lost his first two starts. He parted company with jockey Robbie Walsh with a jumping mistake – while going nowhere – in a novice stakes in April. In June, he finished a dull sixth in the Zeke Ferguson at Colonial Downs. Pierrot Lunaire started his season with losses in the Temple Gwathmey, Iroquois and Ferguson – the seventh, eighth and ninth consecutive losses of his career.

– They came alive in the second half. Demonstrative won a novice stakes, his final start in the division, at Saratoga in late July. A month later at the Spa, he won the Grade 1 New York Turf Writers Cup to become a title contender. Pierrot Lunaire skipped Saratoga, but halted that losing streak in a big way – at 48-1 – in the Grade 1 Lonesome Glory at Belmont Park in September. Favored off his Saratoga double, Demonstrative missed the race, scratched in the paddock when Walsh and potential replacement Matt McCarron were injured in separate falls a race earlier.

– Pierrot Lunaire earned more money $253,000 to $209,000.

– Demonstrative is 5. Pierrot Lunaire is 8. For another couple of weeks.

– Demonstrative won three races in 2012. Pierrot Lunaire won two.

– Pierrot Lunaire has earned $505,779 in 26 career starts and five wins. Demonstrative $341,574 in 28 and eight.

– Pierrot Lunaire won the season series, 2-0, though the sweep might require an asterisk. Or two. In their first meeting, the Ferguson at Colonial Downs, Pierrot Lunaire finished fifth and Demonstrative was one behind in sixth. In short, neither ran well. Afterward, Valentine said his horse tested “off the charts” positive for EPM, a neurologic virus carried by opossums. EPM affects muscle use, coordination and other bodily functions. Left untreated, horses can be crippled and die. Treated aggressively, horses can get past it quickly. Demonstrative obviously got past it as he won his next two starts. In their second meeting, Pierrot Lunaire thrived in soft going at Far Hills in October and won the $250,000 Grand National. Not nearly as effective on the soft, Demonstrative settled for fourth. In one of the year’s many domino decisions, Valentine only ran at Far Hills because the Belmont start got scrapped. In hindsight, staying home for the Grand National may have helped his title hopes. Oh what might have been.

– They almost met on two other occasions. The first was Belmont, which would have been some test. The turf was firm, the purse was $150,000 (second-highest level on the jump circuit), the 2 ½-mile distance was ideal for both horses. Then calamity struck in the first of two jump races on the Sept. 27 card. Walsh broke his hip in a fall. McCarron was knocked out briefly. And Demonstrative, strolling the paddock at odds-on, had no jockey. There were a few options, but Valentine didn’t want to risk it and sent his horse back to the barn. And we know what happened. Pierrot Lunaire beat Spy In The Sky (third to Demonstrative at Saratoga) by a nose. The second was at the Colonial Cup, which would have been THE stage to decide the Eclipse. The race’s purse is less than half that of the Grand National, but might be more important as the season finale and historical database of finality and greatness going back to 1970. Though healthy, Pierrot Lunaire stayed home and Demonstrative ruled – blasting past the field in deep stretch to take the Grade 1. Oh what might have been II.

– And if you’re trying to decide on impact, good luck. Who won the more important race? You’ll have to figure out how to split the Grand National and Colonial Cup and that’s a tough assignment. Call a physicist. The Grand National is worth $250,000, at least $100,000 more than any other U.S. jump race. The race dates to 1899 and has been won by legends, who competed at its many venues – Morris Park, Belmont, Aqueduct and so on. But it’s not 2 1/2 times as important as the $100,000 Colonial Cup. And the often wet weather at Far Hills can make form  worthless – recent winners Percussionist and Your Sum Man never won again. The Grand National does have five-time winner McDynamo, a moder-day hero. The Colonial Cup has been a fixture on the circuit since 1970, always the final major stakes stop on the calendar. Its past includes four-time winner Flatterer, three-timers McDynamo (see how good he was) and Lonesome Glory. In modern American jump racing, no race carries the weight of the Colonial Cup – no matter what happens to the purses.

None of that makes it easier to make a decision.

­For whom do you vote? That’s a personal preference but, as usual, you must ask questions. Do you vote for the best horse, the one you think would win head-to-head? Or do you vote for the horse who had the best year? For me, the first description would require a vote for Demonstrative; the second a vote for Pierrot Lunaire. Right now, on good to firm turf, I think Demonstrative is a better horse. But Pierrot Lunaire beat him once, finished in front of him another time. And earned more money. Hmm. The fiasco at Belmont and the soft turf at Far Hills should not count against Demonstrative. Or should they? Then again, not running in the Colonial Cup should not count against Pierrot Lunaire. Or should it?

Your call. My call.  Making it is half the fun.

Oh, and since voters have to list three on their Eclipse ballots Divine Fortune gets the show spot on the ticket even if he didn’t win a stakes all year. The gamest horse in the game finished second in three of the circuit’s six Grade 1 stakes – to Arcadius in the Iroquois, Pierrot Lunaire in the Grand National and Demonstrative in the Colonial Cup – and was battling for the lead when he fell at the last fence of the Turf Writers.