November 28, 2021

Ranking Eclipse Award Winners: Turf Horse

Dahlia defeats males in the 1974 Man o' War at Belmont Park (NYRA/Coglianese Photos)

In celebration of the 50th year of the Eclipse Awards, Brisnet staff and contributors have delved into the history of the past five decades of champions and come up with individual thoughts on the best, and not so best, among most of the equine divisions since 1971. We highlighted the 3-year-old males on Dec. 28, 3-year-old fillies Dec. 29, and turf females Dec. 30, and more divisions are on tap Dec. 31.

For the marquee divisions of champion 3-year-old male and champion older dirt male, we’ve ranked the campaigns 1 through 50. For five other select divisions, our experts highlight what they believe were the top 10 and bottom 10 campaigns.

  1. DAHLIA (1974)

Voted champion grass horse before there was a separate category for turf female, Dahlia defeated males in five major races, in four countries, across two continents, while scoring historic doubles in 1974. The first ever to repeat in Britain’s midsummer showpiece, the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1), Dahlia stood alone until Swain (1997-98), and it took another two decades for Enable to follow suit. Dahlia also became the first King George winner to cut back in trip successfully for the Group 1 at York, then known as the Benson & Hedges Gold Cup (now the Juddmonte International) – another rare feat emulated only twice since. Earlier in the summer, she landed the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud (G1).

Dahlia took her game to North America to win the Man o’ War (G1) at Belmont Park and the Canadian International (G2) in course-record time at Woodbine. If not for lagging behind a pathetic pace as the defending champion in the Washington D.C. International (G1), where she flashed home too late in third, Dahlia might have swept the triple. There have been greater turf horses, but as Eclipse campaigns go, the breadth of Dahlia’s wins, both historically and geographically, is something else.

  1. SECRETARIAT (1973)

All things being equal, a male whose turf Eclipse depended entirely upon wins in the Man o’ War and Canadian International wouldn’t command historical attention. When you’re discussing Secretariat, however, things are radically unequal. Try though I might to find an excuse not to put him this high, out of a pedantic idea about a “campaign” needing more than two turf races, there’s just no escaping the fact that those two races were extraordinary. Secretariat simply mauled them, holding out the mind-boggling prospect that the record-setting Triple Crown winner was at least as good on turf.

At Belmont Park, he set a 1 1/2-mile course record in 2:24.80, to pair with his immortal 2:24 in the Belmont S. (G1) on the main track, and at Woodbine, jockey Eddie Maple (subbing for a suspended Ron Turcotte) was stunned at how Secretariat could make multiple breathtaking moves in a cascade of acceleration over 1 5/8 miles. Secretariat didn’t have the opportunity to build a more extensive body of work on the grass, but “Big Red” did enough to rank highly among American turf campaigns.

  1. JOHN HENRY (1981)

His dramatic photo-finish victory in the inaugural Arlington Million is literally iconic – enshrined in bronze at Arlington – but there was so much more to John Henry’s 1981 campaign. The great gelding won his first Horse of the Year title, and second turf Eclipse, after going 8-for-10 while spanning turf and dirt on both coasts. His series of turf wins included repeats in the San Luis Rey (G1), Oak Tree Invitational (G1), and Hollywood Invitational (G1) under 130 pounds. That weight-carrying feat puts him in elite company historically, even before considering his marquee victories on dirt in the Santa Anita H. (G1) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) that made him champion handicap horse. John Henry’s second Horse of the Year campaign also warrants inclusion below.

  1. MANILA (1986)

The winner of six in a row, Manila progressed throughout a 3-year-old season that started in a maiden and culminated in an epic Breeders’ Cup Turf. Four of his major wins came versus elders – a course-record United Nations (G1) at Atlantic City, the Ballantine’s Scotch Classic (G3) by 9 1/2 lengths, the Turf Classic (G1) at Belmont, and finally the Breeders’ Cup, where he had to come around late to run down a Theatrical in full flight. Also beaten that day was all-time European great Dancing Brave, albeit off form. Manila’s streak continued into 1987, coloring my perceptions here (especially regarding Theatrical’s 1987 Eclipse campaign, a top 10 contender that I ultimately didn’t include).

  1. DAYLAMI (1999)

Godolphin’s Daylami boasts a unique grand slam in his 1999 campaign. After taking both of Britain’s 1 1/2-mile prestige prizes open to older horses, the Coronation Cup (G1) and King George, he crushed the 1 1/4-mile Irish Champion (G1) by an amazing nine lengths and landed the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) at Gulfstream. Although a precious few winners of one of those races has gone on to win the Turf, no one else has swept all four. The Aga Khan-bred gray was unlucky to get bottomless ground in that fall’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1), where he spun his wheels in a tenderly-handled ninth. As a classic winner of the 1997 Poule d’Essai des Poulains (French 2000 Guineas) (G1) before starring over further as an older horse, Daylami was hardly in need of post-Arc redemption, but the Breeders’ Cup gave him a last hurrah and an Eclipse Award.

  1. FANTASTIC LIGHT (2001)

Fellow Godolphin standardbearer Fantastic Light, already an accomplished globetrotter, saved his best campaign for last as a mature 6-year-old. He most famously withstood the hitherto unbeaten Galileo in the Irish Champion, repaying the favor after Galileo had beaten him in the King George. Fantastic Light’s only other loss of 2001 also came at 1 1/2 miles in the Dubai Sheema Classic (G2), mugged by Japan’s Stay Gold in a brutal head-bob on the line. The lone winner of the Prince of Wales’s (G1) at Royal Ascot to add the Breeders’ Cup Turf in the same season, Fantastic Light clinched his Eclipse in a Belmont course-record 2:24.36.

  1. PARADISE CREEK (1994)

Despite a frustrating loss as the 4-5 favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, Paradise Creek deserves to be celebrated for a prolific campaign that showcased his distance range. He kicked off 1994 with a six-race winning streak, from 1 1/16 to 1 1/4 miles, and set or equaled two course records while conceding significant weight. Paradise Creek still owns the 1 1/4-mile course mark at Belmont, a scintillating 1:57.79, from his 6 3/4-length tour de force in the Manhattan (G1). His skein was ended by Lure in the Bernard Baruch H. (G2), but Paradise Creek had defeated him in their other two meetings that season, dethroning Lure in both the Early Times Turf Classic (G2) and Dixie (G2). Paradise Creek then rebounded in the Arlington Million and romped in the Washington D.C. International. Not helped by racing keenly from post 13 in the Breeders’ Cup, Paradise Creek expended too much energy in his first 1 1/2-mile attempt and tired to third. He nearly made amends with a better trip in the Japan Cup, just nipped on the line in a photo that could have gone either way.

  1. JOHN HENRY (1984)

Even if John Henry hadn’t been a senior citizen by the time of his second Horse of the Year campaign, his accomplishments in 1984 would loom large. Factor in his age as a 9-year-old, coming off two relatively quiet seasons by his Hall of Fame standards, and his record becomes all the more compelling. Indeed, John Henry’s activity had been limited to just five starts apiece in 1982 and 1983 (when still winning his third turf Eclipse). Yet he rolled back the years to win six of his final seven starts. Regaining his Arlington Million crown by defeating future Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) champion Royal Heroine, John Henry won the Hollywood Invitational for the third time, added the Turf Classic and Sunset H. (G1) to his resume, set a course record in the Golden Gate H. (G3), and capped it all in the Ballantine’s Scotch Classic. In a cinematic ending under the Meadowlands lights, John Henry delivered a rousing rally to win going away, giving weight all around, equaling the course record, and pocketing a bonus that pushed his then-record earnings past the $6.5 million mark.

  1. WISE DAN (2013)

Another great gelding, Wise Dan crafted a John Henry-like profile as a two-time Horse of the Year who twice reigned as champion turf male and champion older male. Had he been given more chances on dirt as his career developed, instead of morphing into a turf specialist midway through 2012, he could have remained a multi-surface threat. Wise Dan’s 2013 campaign is marginally preferred, not only because he was building upon 2012 by repeating in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, Woodbine Mile (G1) (in a course-record 1:31.75), and Fourstardave H. (G2), but because he proved himself under high weights seldom seen these days. In his Fourstardave title defense, Wise Dan shouldered 129 pounds. He shrugged off a 128-pound impost, and an argument with the Churchill Downs hedge on a rainy night, to win the Firecracker (G2). Both times, Wise Dan gave the smart Lea 11 or 12 pounds and a beating. Wise Dan also captured the Maker’s 46 Mile (G1) and Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (G1) as part of a nine-race winning spree dating back to 2012. His streak ended with a second in the off-the-turf Shadwell (G1), transferred to Keeneland’s drenched Polytrack. If not for the Kentucky rain that day, he might well have retired with 15 wins in a row, for Wise Dan began a new streak in the Breeders’ Cup.

  1. KOTASHAAN (1993)

Like Paradise Creek, Kotashaan was the victim of an agonizing Japan Cup loss. But Kotashaan at least had the consolation of a Breeders’ Cup Turf victory that propelled him to the Horse of the Year title in 1993. Just a nose away from a seven-race winning streak in Southern California, the French expat had no difficulty shortening up from a course-record San Juan Capistrano (G1) over an extended 1 3/4 miles to score decisively in the 1 1/8-mile Eddie Read (G1). His other highlights included the San Luis Rey, San Luis Obispo (by seven lengths), and the Oak Tree Invitational. If not for a misjudged ride in Tokyo, Kotashaan might have gone out in a blaze of Japan Cup glory.

***

After celebrating the boon years, we can point out the 10 Eclipse-winning turf campaigns with the least historical heft in the grand scheme of things.

  1. SNOW KNIGHT (1975)

When not battling his demons that predisposed him to flights of terror, Snow Knight was capable of outstanding performances. Unfortunately, his meltdown in the United Nations, and bobbling in the Washington D.C. International, prevented him from adding to a resume highlighted by the Canadian International and Man o’ War (awarded via disqualification). Thus Snow Knight is more often remembered as the 50-1 shock winner of the 1974 Derby (G1) at Epsom than for his stateside championship.

  1. COZZENE (1985)

A performer of unusual grit, Cozzene improved from a third to Royal Heroine in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Mile to win the next year’s edition at Aqueduct. But the Mile was his only Grade 1 race of 1985, and otherwise he was competing in lesser contests or missing narrowly in the Bernard Baruch.

  1. NORTHERN SPUR (1995)

Northern Spur beat the close Arc runner-up Freedom Cry in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, giving him a fine collateral formline with unbeaten Arc winner Lammtarra. Yet his slim campaign consisted of just four races, including a flop in the Arlington Million and a rebound in the Oak Tree Invitational.

  1. GIO PONTI (2010)

It would have been quite a task to duplicate a 2009 campaign that achieved Eclipse Awards in both the turf and older male categories. Gio Ponti’s Grade 1 haul was indeed reduced by half (four to two) in 2010, enough to retain the turf crown if not as remarkable. Getting up to repeat in the Man o’ War, he settled for second as the defending champion in both the Manhattan and Arlington Million. Gio Ponti righted the ship when cutting back for the Shadwell Turf Mile, only to run into three-peater Goldikova in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. You’ve got to feel for such a classy colt who also beat everybody but Zenyatta in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). His legacy undoubtedly leans more on 2009 than the later phases of his career.

  1. ITSALLGREEKTOME (1990)

Late-season heroics in the Hollywood Derby (G1) and Hollywood Turf Cup (G1), following a near-miss to Royal Academy in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, made Itsallgreektome something of a buzzer-beater Eclipse choice. Still, it’s difficult to overlook the rest of the year, or the fact that fellow sophomore Tight Spot appeared better in the summer. Not seen after beating Itsallgreektome by three lengths in the Del Mar Derby (G2), controversially disqualified for interference and later reinstated on appeal, Tight Spot would become the Eclipse champion in 1991.

  1. FLINTSHIRE (2016)

Flintshire was a European import of the highest quality, but his Eclipse campaign ended in a pair of seconds that revived his former bridesmaid status. Outclassing his rivals in the Manhattan, Bowling Green (G2), and Sword Dancer Invitational (G1), he was floored by another ex-French runner, Ectot, in a Turf Classic on yielding and could never lay a glove on Ballydoyle star Highland Reel in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

  1. MIESQUE’S APPROVAL (2006)

Like Cozzene, Miesque’s Approval secured his Eclipse in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Unlike Cozzene, he was a 24-1 longshot after a dead-heat fourth in his only prior Grade 1, the Shadwell Turf Mile. Miesque’s Approval had back class as a graded stakes winner, but after a brief detour through the claiming ranks, he still fit more on the Grade 2-3 scene until his Breeders’ Cup surprise.

  1. BIG BLUE KITTEN (2015)

Third-best in the Breeders’ Cup Turf to European celebrities Found and Golden Horn, Big Blue Kitten solidified his claims as the division’s domestic leader. From an historical standpoint, however, that doesn’t amount to a great deal. His wins in the United Nations and Turf Classic are offset by seconds in the Manhattan and Arlington Million among a generally uninspiring group.

  1. CHANNEL MAKER (presumptive 2020)

Presumably Channel Maker will win the Eclipse vote for the 2020 title, and if so, he’ll broadly emulate the Big Blue Kitten pattern as the third-placer to Europeans Tarnawa and Magical in the Turf. Channel Maker raced a little more than Big Blue Kitten, and turned in worse losses, but finished strong with front-running coups in the Sword Dancer and Turf Classic. Even so, the division lacked a standout.

  1. STORMY LIBERAL (2018)

By outdueling World of Trouble in a titanic title defense in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1), Stormy Liberal not only joined the exclusive club of two-time Breeders’ Cup winners. The veteran also backed into an Eclipse Award as the most palatable option. The turf routers were in enough disarray for the electorate to break new ground in voting for a sprinter. Stormy Liberal had won four straight, and he had international form through his second to Godolphin’s Jungle Cat in the Al Quoz Sprint (G1) on Dubai World Cup night. Yet his campaign was a complete outlier in terms of champion turf horse honors, a title he wouldn’t have won if a two-turn performer had distinguished himself.