This past Saturday evening, thoroughbred racing gathered together to honor the best of the best from the past year with the announcement of the 2016 Eclipse Awards. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Daily Racing, and the National Turf Writers Association created the Eclipse Awards, named for British racer and sire Eclipse, in 1971 to honor elite horses and their human counterparts each year. California Chrome followed up his 2014 Horse of the Year win with another Horse of the Year honor for 2016, after his record of seven wins in eight starts. His only loss came behind the speedy wonder Arrogate in the Breeder’s Cup Classic.
California Chrome’s 2014 Horse of the Year honor follows his unsuccessful attempt at winning the Triple Crown, when he came in fourth in the Belmont after a shaky start which saw him stepped on at the start by Matterhorn. Of course, the next year saw American Pharoah dominate all of the awards with his 2015 Triple Crown victory, the first in 37 years. The 12th Triple Crown winner was the unanimous Horse of the Year, the unquestioned best horse of 2015. Ending the Triple Crown drought and then following that up with victories in the Haskell Invitational and the Breeder’s Cup Classic sealed the HOY deal for Pharaoh. Our first Triple Crown winner was not quite so fortunate.
Newspapers of the time give Sir Barton three-year-old champion honors, though none of these awards were officially recognized until 1936. Despite winning the Triple Crown (as we know it now) and a number of other victories, Sir Barton’s record of 13-8-3-2 was not quite as stellar as another three-year-old, Purchase, who had a record of 11-9-2-0 for 1919. Thus, for some, the Triple Crown winner’s supremacy wasn’t quite total. The doubt came from July’s Dwyer Stakes, where Purchase beat a sore Sir Barton, who was carrying nine more pounds and turned a shoe during the race. Despite winning four races in thirty-two days and setting a precedent that is racing’s central focus for the first half of each year, Sir Barton was not good enough for some in his own time to be unanimously the best of his class.
Years later, of course, Sir Barton was awarded both his Triple Crown trophy and Horse of the Year honors. He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in its initial class in 1957 and then into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1976. It speaks to the difference between Sir Barton’s time and ours that America’s first Triple Crown winner didn’t quite dominate the minds of racing back then as he might have today.