Jockey Eclipse is a tough call

OK, we’re close to the finish line for all of the annual year-ender stories and lists, but I have on

OK, we’re close to the finish line for all of the annual year-ender stories and lists, but I have one last piece of business before turning the past-performance page on 2015.

Deadline for Eclipse Award voting is Saturday, and I, like everyone else, submitted a ballot that was heavy on American Pharoah.

In any given year, there seems to be a pretty even mix of categories — among the 17 in thoroughbred racing’s version of the Oscars — that are no-brainers based on the dominance of a horse, and those that are brain-busters in the absence of such a horse.

This year is pretty unusual because that mix has been thrown totally out of whack by American Pharoah’s Triple Crown sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, making many categor­ies easy checkoffs.

One exception is the Eclipse for the top jockey, and the question is this: How do you weigh one rider whose 2015 campaign didn’t amount to much more than winning the Triple Crown (as glib as that sounds) against another who had such a spectacular year that it would be one of those no-brainers in any other year?

I’ll dispense with some of the no-brainer picks first.

American Pharoah pretty much clinched 3-year-old male as early as May, after he won the Preakness, and the Horse of the Year lock soon followed, when he won the Belmont in June.

Race over.

The historical particulars have been — rightfully — belabored enough by now, but the only horse who had a glimmer of a chance to beat him for Horse of the Year was the mare Beholder, and she missed the Breeders’ Cup Classic with an injury, still my biggest disappointment of the season, since I was prepared to pick her to beat Pharoah in that race.

I still would’ve voted him for Horse of the Year.

Throw in three more Eclipse trophies to trainer Bob Baffert and to Ahmed Zayat for owner and breeder, and the awards show at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 16 will be a cavalcade of Pharoah speeches.

It would be cool if some of the footage included a shot of the 15,000 who showed up at Saratoga Race Course for his gallop the Friday morning before his Travers loss to Keen Ice.

I believe Pharoah’s jockey, Victor Espinoza, will win the jockey Eclipse, and that’s who I voted for, but you can make a very strong case for Javier Castellano, whose 2015 will fall into the “Best-not-to-have-won” classification that you see sometimes with awards like the Cy Young and various MVPs.

The tale of the tape between Castellano, who has won the Eclipse the last two years, and Espinoza, a 43-year-old who is well into the tail of an already terrific career that now is Hall of Fame-worthy, isn’t even close.

Through Monday, Castel­lano was many lengths ahead of the field in 2015 North American earnings, with $28,012,727, and victories, with 339.

But it isn’t just quantity.

In terms of graded-stakes victories, Castellano is at the top with 46, followed by John Velazquez with 31. He has more Grade I’s, more Grade II’s and more Grade III’s than anybody. Espinoza has 89 total wins, of any kind, all year.

Without American Phar­oah’s six Grade I wins, Esp­inoza has four total, compared to 17 for Castellano, who was particularly dominant at Saratoga.

Our track, boasting the most competitive jockey colony on the continent, runs 17 Grade I races, and Castellano won six of them, including the Hopeful, A.G. Vanderbilt, Woodward, Alabama, Whitney and Travers (beating American Phar­oah aboard Keen Ice). Since the Alabama was inaugurated in 1928, no jockey had swept the Alabama, Whitney and Travers, the three most important races at the Spa.

On top of that, Castellano beat eventual Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Liam’s Map on Honor Code in the Whitney, then came back to jump on Liam’s Map to win the Woodward when Honor Code skipped that race.

There are no stated criteria for Eclipse Award selections, though. There are rules, of course, but nowhere does it say how to vote within them. It’s not just about earnings and number of victories.

With that in mind, I picked Espinoza over Castellano simply because of the Triple Crown. That was plenty enough for me.

So much has to go right to pull this off, otherwise we’d have more than 12 of them and perhaps wouldn’t have had to wait since 1978 for this one. The trainer has to manage an immensely difficult challenge of keeping a horse healthy and fit enough to win the three races in a span of five months.

The jockey has to be on his game, too, and as effortless as it appeared when Pharoah won his races, there was a reason Espinoza was the pilot. He knew his horse, his experience eliminated panic and impatience from the equation and, time and time again, Espinoza put his horse in position to show how good he was.

And, again, it’s the Triple Crown.

So you tip your hat to Castellano for his ridiculously great season, but you let Espinoza take one more bow for the job he did and the part he played in giving what for many of us will be the memory of a lifetime in this sport.

Space constraints prohibit me (well, it’s more of a suggestion) from explaining my rationale in other categories, but feel free to contact me with any questions/low-level indignation/unbridled outrage. My top pick in all categories:

Horse of the Year: American Phar­oah.

2-year-old male: Nyquist.

2-year-old female: Songbird.

3-year-old male: American Pharoah.

3-year-old female: Stellar Wind.

Older dirt male: Honor Code.

Older dirt female: Beholder.

Male sprinter: Runhappy.

Female sprinter: La Verdad.

Male turf horse: The Pizza Man.

Female turf horse: Tepin.

Steeplechase horse: Dawalan.

Owner: Zayat Stables.

Trainer: Bob Baffert.

Jockey: Victor Espinoza.

Breeder: Zayat Stables.

Apprentice jockey: Eric Cancel.

Categories: Sports

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