Voter Fatigue, but a class horse

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Hewick jumps the last at Far Hills. Tod Marks photo

You can’t get mad at people for not voting in an election, and also get mad at people for their voting choices.

Or can you? No, you can’t.

So I’m not mad at the way the steeplechase Eclipse Award voting turned out.

In his only American start of 2022, Irish raider Hewick dominated the $250,000 American Grand National stakes at Far Hills. The 11 ½-length win was enough – for enough voters – to give him the seasonal championship. Hewick is awesome. His trainer and co-owner Shark Hanlon is a gracious winner, a great interview and – clearly – knows how to train a horse. I remember watching replays before the Grand National, and thinking how strong the now 8-year-old looked on the summer turf at Ireland’s Galway Festival in July. Hewick won the Galway Plate steeplechase while prominent throughout. He jumped, he galloped, he ruled, he really looked like he’d enjoy the American style of racing and give U.S. horses all they could handle.

At Far Hills, going 2 5/8 miles on yielding turf, Hewick clobbered them. He stalked a stiff pace cut out by the American-based Pistol Whipped and England’s Global Citizen, took up the running on the final run down the backstretch and immediately put everyone on their back foot. He was always traveling, always going to win.

I don’t vote for one-start European horses in the Eclipse awards, flat or jump, but clearly people do. They think one big win, on the flat it typically comes at the Breeders’ Cup, can carry a division. I don’t. In my view, the Eclipse Award (no matter the division) honors a horse’s North American campaign and one start can’t be a campaign. My self-imposed rule is at least two starts in North America, barely a campaign I know, but that’s my rule and not necessarily anyone else’s. I at times find myself in a voting conundrum when – like Hewick – a one-start horse is particularly dominant.

Hewick made five English and Irish starts in 2022 (two wins, a second, a lost rider and a pull-up) and earned $283,263 there plus the $150,000 here. To me, those overseas races shouldn’t count. He made one start in North America. Was it brilliant? Fun? Cool? Yes, yes and yes.

He’s worthy of honor, an amazing story, clearly good enough to be a champion and he’s represented by a class human being in Hanlon (who paid less than $1,000 for the stable star and co-owns him with T.J. McDonald). The trainer made the trek from Ireland to Florida for the Eclipse ceremony, and was thrilled.

“It was brilliant, absolutely brilliant,” he said this week. “I was so shocked and so proud of the horse. I’m so glad I went over because they don’t tell you you’ve won beforehand. They don’t tell you anything. I had no idea. To hear his name called was something.”

Hewick received 113 first-place votes (second and third are only used to determine finalists and any horse is eligible to receive votes) to outpace Snap Decision (88), Down Royal (15) and Howyabud (1).

Twenty-nine voters abstained. All 29 didn’t give reasons, but the practice occurs every year. Explanations lean toward the steeplechase horses being unknown, voters feeling uninformed about their decisions, steeplechase racing not being in the voters’ job descriptions and so on. Eclipse voters include members of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, Daily Racing Form staffers and a group of National Thoroughbred Racing Association officials and Equibase field personnel (chartcallers, etc.).

I hate the idea of people abstaining. If they’re voters, they should vote. Blah, blah, blah. The steeplechase category is easy to skip. For whatever reason, people marginalize the jumpers and probably always will. Abstaining is allowed. I’ll get over it. Or I should.

My simple question would be that if you abstained because you don’t understand what you’re supposed to be voting on, what can be done to help you understand it? Don’t cop out and say nothing because there are plenty of ways to gain understanding about jump racing. I can help. Lots of people and resources can help. A few years ago, Eclipse organizers turned down the idea of providing a voter’s guide. I’m going to revisit that because everybody should be able to cast an informed vote. If they choose not to, that should be on them.

If you simply don’t want to vote, dislike jump racing or otherwise need something to backhand, be up front about it and say that’s the reason. Hewick won by 25 votes, a smaller number than the abstentions. Your vote matters. It was the closest vote of the 12 equine categories (11 divisions plus Horse of the Year).

At the start I wrote that you can’t get mad with actual votes cast, so . . . I went with Snap Decision. He won two of the five steeplechase Grade 1 stakes, was second in another, ran in four of them and led all jumpers with $220,500. True, he flopped in the most important (when sixth behind Hewick in the Grand National), but his only other losses were seconds when giving away 14 pounds (in April) and 28 pounds (in September) in handicaps. He won at a testing 3 miles in May and a speedy 2 3/8 miles (while carrying 164 pounds) in August. The September loss came with 168 pounds.

Here’s a question. Would more voters have turned to him if the van broke down on the way to New Jersey and he missed the Grand National? And here’s another. If voters held that season-ending Grand National defeat against him, did they vote for Epicenter (who was injured and pulled up in the Breeders’ Cup Classic) as champion 3-year-old?

The first-place votes for the mare Down Royal and Howyabud perplexed me. She won a Grade 1 at Saratoga as the lightest weight in the field, but was 20 lengths behind Snap Decision in a Grade 1 a month later. She won a filly/mare stakes in May and a four-runner Grade 2 a week after the Grand National in October. Down Royal was a cool chapter of the 2022 story, but a champion? Not really. Howyabud didn’t even start in a Grade 1 and his two wins came in restricted company (a first-level allowance and a novice stakes).

But it was an election. At least people voted.

A Little History
Hewick isn’t the first foreign horse with one American start to prevail in Eclipse voting. England’s Morley Street won back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Steeplechases – and Eclipses – in 1990 and 1991. In 2021, Japan’s Loves Only You won the female turf Eclipse with a single start (and win) in the Breeders’ Cup. England’s Conduit won the male turf category in 2008 with a Breeders’ Cup win. French raider Goldikova won the Breeders’ Cup Mile three times, and claimed the female turf Eclipse after two of them.

Way back in 1969, Irish-based L’Escargot won the steeplechase championship with a single U.S. win in the $20,000 Meadow Brook (by a head) at Belmont Park in June. In his only other American start that year, he finished third in the $50,000 Temple Gwathmey in October. Owned by American Raymond Guest, L’Escargot won four Irish races in 1969.

This was pre-Eclipse Awards and two groups – the Daily Racing Form/Telegraph newspapers and the Thoroughbred Racing Associations racing secretaries – recognized official “champions.” L’Escargot won with both blocs and lived up to the confidence by becoming an all-time great. He won England’s Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1970 and 1971, and added the English Grand National in 1975. The 1969 voters evidently could see the future – which later included induction in American racing’s Hall of Fame despite a single victory in the country.

Predictably, there was some debate about his American crown in 1969.

In “Steeplechasing in America 1969,” Jack Cooper wrote, “Perhaps in these days of a shrinking world it might be considered provincial to take less than an international point of view. However, the author clings to the belief that an American champion should be selected on the basis of his American record.” Cooper leaned toward Jacko, who won five of eight starts led by Delaware Park’s Indian River and Rolling Rock’s International Gold Cup stakes. I’m not sure I would have voted for Jacko, who also won two claimers, but I would not have voted for L’Escargot.

But I would have voted.