Top ‘Gun’ Lands Horse of the Year

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla.–The 47th Eclipse Awards were held Thursday evening at Gulfstream Park’s Sport of Kings Theatre, and Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm’s Gun Runner (Candy Ride {Arg}) took home the highest honor as 2017 Horse of the Year. With the speedy chestnut’s final career race looming in Saturday’s GI Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream, the award took on added meaning for his connections.

“This is bittersweet, knowing that in a week, Gun Runner won’t be part of our racing stable, but it’s a great honor and pleasure to stand here and be part of his career and legacy,” said Ron Winchell while accepting Gun Runner’s earlier honor as champion older dirt male.

After sharing the microphone with co-owner Goncalo Borges Torrealba of Three Chimneys Farm, Winchell later added, “Every year, I look at every horse and dream of which one could get a little bronze trophy at the end of the year. I never dreamed that I could get a gold trophy.”

“The memories Gun Runner has allowed us for the year that he’s had, they will stay with us forever,” added trainer Steve Asmussen, who became the first trainer in Eclipse Award history to train four Horses of the Year.

Nick Luck began the evening with a few good-natured barbs at trainers Steve Asmussen and Chad Brown while roaming the crowd and interviewing Brown, the trainer’s family, bloodstock agent Bradley Weisbord and jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. Minutes later, Keeneland’s Bill Thomason dished it right back to the charismatic host, joking that Luck may have enjoyed himself too much at the pre-show cocktail hour.

Clearsky Farms took home the award for outstanding breeder for a season that was capped by the achievements of standouts Arrogate (Unbridled’s Song) and Abel Tasman (Quality Road). Bernard Cleary of Clearsky credited the award to his team back at the farm and his late father, Eamon, who he said put in 16 hours of work every day after founding Clearsky, despite being ill.

“That’s why this is quite meaningful to me and my family,” he said. “We don’t feel like it’s our award, we feel like it’s his.”

Keeping with the theme of Arrogate, Juddmonte Farms notched its second-straight and fourth overall Eclipse Award for champion owner on the heels of a season that saw them take home nine North American Grade I races.

Gary and Mary West’s West Coast (Flatter) was honored as champion 3-year-old male and Gary West was quick to credit racing manager Ben Glass and the rest of his sales team for making shrewd purchases in the auction ring–an aspect of racing that West likened to the NFL Draft. He also credited the patience shown by trainer Bob Baffert with the later-developing colt.

“If there’s one piece of advice I have for anyone new in this game, it’s to have patience with horses,” West said. “If a trainer tells you the horse isn’t ready to run, they’re not ready to run…We’ve waited 40 years for this award and if we’d won in our first 5-10 years, it wouldn’t mean nearly as much as this does.”

China Horse Club and Clearsky Farm’s Abel Tasman landed the Eclipse Award for champion sophomore filly and a large group was on stage to celebrate the award.

“Tonight, many in Asia and China were waiting to see if Abel Tasman would be recognized,” said Teo Ah Khing of China Horse Club, who was joined by Allen Chastanet, Prime Minister of St. Lucia, while mentioning a new racetrack project he is developing on the island nation.

Charles Fipke’s homebred Forever Unbridled (Unbridled’s Song) was crowned champion older dirt female after a memorable 2017 season that wrapped up with a victory in the GI Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

Sheep Pond Partners’ Lady Eli (Divine Park) claimed a well-deserved first ever Eclipse Award as champion female turf horse, providing a fitting conclusion to her storied career. Co-owner Sol Kumin, who noted that Lady Eli was named for his wife Elizabeth, thanked both trainer Chad Brown and his team and jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., while Jay Hanley gave a special thanks to Lady Eli’s farriers for devoting themselves to her recovery from Laminitis.

“She really forever changed my life and my family’s life,” Kumin said. “We fell in love with this sport on the journey she took us on. People talk about the highs and lows of horse racing, and I never really knew what that meant until I had Lady Eli.”

Live Oak Plantation homebred World Approval (Northern Afleet) captured three Grade I turf miles to close out his 2017 season, good enough for recognition as champion male turf horse.

The first award of the evening, champion female sprinter, went to recent GI La Brea S. winner Unique Bella (Tapit) in a tightly contested division. The fleet-footed gray became the first 3-year-old to win the award since Indian Blessing in 2008.

“Our family has a long history and tradition in our home country of Chile,” said Don Alberto’s Carlos Heller. “We had a dream of racing and breeding at the highest level in America and tonight, we have confirmation that our dream has come true.”

Roy H (More Than Ready) took home the male sprinter award on the heels of a five-win campaign from six starts that culminated with a victory in the GI Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Co-owner David Bernsen and trainer Peter Miller accepted the award, with the latter delivering a heartfelt thank you to both his owners and help.

“Without the people backing you up, you’re nothing,” Miller noted.

Famed announcer Tom Durkin provided some mid-evening comedic relief, joking that people need to put their Eclipse Awards in perspective before revealing his own statuette he was holding behind his back and talking about sleeping with the award. He also gave Winchell advice on how to polish and maintain it.

The awards for champion 2-year-old male and female went to Good Magic (Curlin) and Caledonia Road (Quality Road), respectively. Caledonia Road gave her sire his second Eclipse of the evening, following in the footsteps of Abel Tasman, and became the first Eclipse winner for trainer Ralph Nicks. The award was accepted by Luc Paiement, who reached the stage with the aid of crutches after recently rupturing his Achilles tendon.

Bob Edwards of e Five Racing Thoroughbreds also became a first-time Eclipse Award winner and credited co-owner and breeder Barbara Banke of Stonestreet Farm and his bloodstock agent Mike Ryan, among others, to contributing to the championship season.

“All I do is just bring the luck,” Edwards said with a laugh.

Scorpiancer (Scorpion {Ire}) was honored as champion steeplechaser despite an abbreviated two-start campaign.

Chad Brown was named champion trainer for the second consecutive year and stressed how the award is more a reflection of his entire team than him as an individual. Jose Ortiz claimed his first Eclipse award as champion jockey and got emotional while dedicating the award to his brother and competitor Irad Ortiz, Jr. Southern California-based Evin Roman took home the award for champion apprentice jockey.

Frank Stronach received the Eclipse Award of Merit and spoke of the challenges faced by horse racing while outlining the goals of The Stronach Group to bring about positive change in the industry.

“I can only imagine what this game would have been like without him,” said The Stronach Group CEO Tim Ritvo as he introduced Stronach.

“We as horse people need to sit down and think, ‘Where are we going?’ In life, you have to know where you’re going,” Stronach asserted. “Horses are alike all around the world. There are no politics involved, no religion.”

Eclipse Special Award: Courage in the Face of Tragedy
Special Eclipse Awards were handed out to the first responders to both the San Luis Rey Downs wildfire and Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico’s Camarero Racetrack, recognizing their efforts to provide relief to horse and human populations alike under dire circumstances.

“We cannot thank everyone, but the spirit of this award is all-encompassing,” Gulfstream Park announcer Pete Aiello noted in a video message that recounted heroic relief efforts in response to both tragedies. Nick Luck went on to note that the racing community has raised nearly $900,000 in donations to aid the San Luis Rey relief efforts.

Kelly Stobie and Shelly Blodgett of Caribbean Thoroughbred Aftercare Inc. accepted the special award on behalf of the first responders in Puerto Rico, thanking their colleagues for their continual efforts while stressing that the situation requires ongoing attention. Blodgett thanked TDN‘s Sue Finley among others for raising awareness of the catastrophe in its aftermath. She also thanked Charlotte Weber, the TRF and “countless individuals” who donated.

Peter Miller, who lost five horses in the San Luis Rey blaze, took the stage next and delivered a heartfelt speech that emphasized the contrast between the devastation of the fire and the “sheer kindness, selflessness and generosity of horsepeople from around the world” in response to the tragedy. Miller specifically thanked his grooms and hotwalkers for risking their own well-being to save the stable.

“San Luis Rey is a special place. It’s more than a training center–it’s like a family, a community,” said Miller.

“We’re there for each other, we care about each other and we help each other.”

Miller concluded that the response to the fire “Restored my faith in people–especially horse people.”

A second Eclipse Award of Honor was given to the NTRA for their efforts advocating for new IRS regulations in favor of horseplayers on Capitol Hill.