Author: Michele Macdonald

In a mirror image of the 2021 racing season, Godolphin has dominated the voting for America’s Eclipse Award championships with six of the stable’s runners earning status as finalists for trophies and the Maktoum family’s operation a finalist for, and likely winner of, awards as outstanding owner and breeder.

Finalists were announced on 15 January in all categories except Horse of the Year, but winners will not be revealed until the Eclipse Awards ceremony on 10 February at Santa Anita Park. Perhaps most notably, Godolphin’s European and Dubai-based trainer Charlie Appleby trained three of the horses deemed finalists for American championship laurels after a fabulous season of raiding big prizes across the continent.

All three of those Appleby runners won Breeders’ Cup events and all three were by Darley’s superstar European stallion Dubawi. Modern Games, who captured the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile Turf, is a finalist in the juvenile male category alongside American dirt runners Corniche, who is the likely winner since he prevailed in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and fellow Grade One victor Jack Christopher.

Godolphin’s Breeders’ Cup Mile and Turf winners Space Blues and Yibir, respectively, both received recognition as finalists for the Eclipse Award as outstanding male turf runner. Of the stable’s American-based runners, Belmont Stakes winner Essential Quality is a finalist for top honours in the 3yo male category, while Dubai World Cup hero Mystic Guide and Grade One winner Maxfield both are finalists in the older male division.

Essential Quality is in a contentious voting race with Amr Zedan’s star crossed Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, and that pair is joined as finalists by Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner and potential Saudi Cup competitor Life Is Good.

The outcome in this category is expected to be at least partly determined by voters’ visceral feelings about trainer Bob Baffert, who sent out Medina Spirit to be his record seventh Derby winner. Some members of the National Turf Writers & Broadcasters Association, who join voters from Daily Racing Form and Equibase in casting ballots for the championship winners, have publicly stated on social media that they refused to vote for horses trained by Baffert.

Medina Spirit tested positive for a slight overage of the legal medication betamethasone following the Derby and Churchill Downs has banned him from the track and from the 2022 Derby since, they stated, overages of allowed medications also had been previously detected in a few of his other runners in different stakes.

However, Kentucky racing officials have taken no action yet against Medina Spirit and he remains the official Derby winner. Additional post-race testing has revealed the form of betamethasone found in his system is not the type regulated by Kentucky rules, Baffert has asserted.

In his two clashes with Essential Quality, Medina Spirit finished ahead of his Godolphin rival both times, including in their Breeders’ Cup Classic battle with front running winner Knicks Go when Medina Spirit was second and Essential Quality third.

Each colt won two Grade One races. So, in any normal year not poisoned by this unprecedented kind of turmoil, Medina Spirit would be the likely champion, even if many observers might feel that, due to any number of factors including superior pedigree and his juvenile championship, that Essential Quality might be the better horse overall.

Whether fairness will prevail remains to be seen. Baffert’s other trainees who are Eclipse finalists are Gamine, who is trying to duplicate her 2020 title as Champion Female Sprinter while competing with Breeders’ Cup winner Ce Ce and Bella Sofia, and Corniche, who appears, all things being equal, undeniable as an undefeated winner of three races including two at the Grade One level.

Ironically, Gamine won her 2020 Champion Female Sprinter title after returning a positive test for traces of betamethasone when third in that year’s Kentucky Oaks. Following the 2020 Eclipse Awards voting and presentations, Gamine was disqualified from that third place finish.

Looking at other 2021 Eclipse categories, Godolphin’s finalists Maxfield and Mystic Guide are virtually certain to be bested in the voting for top older male by Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Knicks Go, who is expected to also gain the crown as Horse of the Year.

Finalists for the top award, which includes a gold Eclipse trophy, were not announced. Chances will be stronger for Godolphin’s Yibir in the turf male category, although some voters also vocally proclaim their dislike for casting ballots for horses that only race once or twice in America during the season.

Yibir won both his starts in New York and California handily, trouncing the championship field at Del Mar in the Breeders’ Cup, and thus has to be considered. His American-based rival for the Eclipse, Domestic Spending, missed the Cup and raced only one more time over the season, winning a pair of Grade One races.

Space Blues, although clearly outstanding overall and impressive in the Breeders’ Cup, likely will come in third in the balloting with his single American start. In other key categories, unbeaten juvenile filly Echo Zulu is a lock as champion 2yo filly; Shadwell Stable’s Kentucky Oaks heroine Malathaat has a strong shot at champion 3yo filly honours while competing against Clairiere and Europeanbased turf competitor Santa Barabara, and four time Grade One winner Letruska is the clear leader in the older filly/mare division.

Remarkably, Japan has a shot for an Eclipse in the female grass division with Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf winner Loves Only You, who put together an impressive international campaign even if she only had the single American start. Japan’s Marche Lorraine is another finalist, even if facing the popular Letruska in the older female group; both Japanese mares are trained by the superb Yoshito Yahagi.

In the human categories, winners appear to be easily predictable, with Godolphin the rightful winner as outstanding owner versus Juddmonte Farms and Klaravich Stables, and as outstanding breeder in a race with Calumet Farm and Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings.

Godolphin led all others in both categories by earnings, setting an all time record among owners and ranking second all time by most breeder earnings. America’s top trainer will likely be, for the second consecutive year, Brad Cox since his trainee Knicks Go is the leading Horse of the Year candidate.

Cox also trained other finalists Essential Quality, older female Shedaresthedevil and juvenile filly Juju’s Map. Steve Asmussen, who set a record for career wins by a trainer in 2021 while conditioning championship contenders Echo Zulu, Clairiere and male sprinter finalist Jackie’s Warrior, joins Chad Brown as other finalists for the training honours.

Top jockey could be Joel Rosario, who led all American riders by purse money won, Graded Stakes victories and overall Stakes wins. Other finalists are Irad Ortiz Jr, who has won the award the past three years, and Flavien Prat. Meanwhile, other recent American developments of note included: Mystic Guide will not be able to defend his Dubai World Cup title after incurring a physical problem that could spell the end of his career.

Trainer Michael Stidham told Daily Racing Form that “we don’t know for sure whether we’re going to continue on (racing) with him or not.” A 5yo by Ghostzapper, Mystic Guide underwent surgery last year to remove a chip in a knee and had resumed working prior to the latest setback.

Godolphin may finally get to see some return on its major investment in now 4yo Aussie Pride. The son of Curlin and New Zealand Grade One winner Bounding, a halfsister to Epsom Derby victor Anthony Van Dyck, has turned in seven timed workouts for trainer Bill Mott since mid-November.

A $4.1 million yearling purchase from Stonestreet at Keeneland, Aussie Pride has yet to make his racing debut. Lone Rock, who has won nine of his last 11 starts going back to claiming races in 2020, may be aimed at the Dubai World Cup. A multiple Grade Two winner trained by Robertino Diodoro, Lone Rock is a confirmed distance specialist as he has won stakes on dirt at 1 ½, 1 5/8 and 1 ¾ miles.

Michele MacDonald
Award Winning International Journalist