Though his career-ending loss to Life Is Good in the Pegasus World Cup (G1) may have disappointed fans, Knicks Go ended his racing career by taking home Eclipse Award honors as Champion Horse of the Year and Champion Older Dirt Male at the 51st Annual Eclipse Award ceremonies Thursday night at Santa Anita Park.

Somewhat unexpectedly, Knicks Go was not the unanimous choice. Letruska, the Eclipse Champion Older Dirt Female, convinced two voters, as did Japan’s Loves Only You, whose single exceptional U.S. performance in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf followed by a win in December’s Hong Kong Cup (G1) sent her off to retirement at Japan’s Northern Farm with two HOY nods.

To be eligible for an Eclipse Award, a horse must race only once in the U.S. or Canada during the year.

Essential Quality, current Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit and Lil Latigo all snared a single HOY vote. There were only three first-place-vote dissenters for Knicks Go as Champion Older Dirt Male.

“He was a true Horse of the Year,” remarked trainer Brad Cox, who repeated as Champion Eclipse Award Trainer. ”It started [last] January with his win in the Pegasus World Cup [G1] and went through November when he won the Breeders’ Cup Classic [G1]. It was a tremendous year, not a half-year campaign.

“There was a great group of horses this year,” Cox added.

The two-time Breeders’ Cup race winner—he also won last year’s Dirt Mile—was purchased by the Korea Race Authority (KRA) at the Sept. 2017 Keeneland Yearling sale. Over the course of his 25-race career, he amassed $9,258,135 in earnings and a 10-4-1 record.

Bred by Angie and Sabrina Moore, the son of Paynter (out of Kosmo’s Buddy by Outflanker) became the first Maryland bred to win Horse of the Year since the great Cigar in 1995–96. He’s been retired to begin his second career at stud for Kentucky’s Taylor Made Stallions.

Godolphin’s Essential Quality ran away with Champion Three-Year-Old Dirt Male honors. Also trained by Cox and in the running for HOY honors right up until his third-place finish in the Classic, the Tapit colt won a second Eclipse Award. He was last year’s choice as the Champion Two-Year-Old Dirt Male.

Bred and raced by this year’s Champion Breeder and Owner, Godolphin, he ran only nine times in his two-year career, all in graded contests. He earned a 7-0-1 record and $4,755,144 in earnings.  Finishing a current fourth in the Kentucky Derby (G1) after starting in the #14 post and being slammed at the start, his consecutive wins in the Belmont Stakes (G1), Travers Stakes (G1) and Jim Dandy Stakes (G2) sealed this year’s Eclipse Award Champion bid.

The distaff side saw a few expectations, one surprise and an anticipated close contest that wasn’t so close.

Letruska carted away the Champion Older Dirt Female hardware following a year-long campaign that began with a stirring victory over previous Eclipse Award winner Monomoy Girl in the Apple Blossom (G1). She went on to a dizzying string of successes in the Ogden Phipps, Personal Ensign and Spinster Stakes, all G1 contests, the Fleur De Lis (G2) and Houston Ladies Classic (G2). Second in the Azeri Stakes (G2), she finished off the board in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) when locked into an early race speed match.

The daughter of Super Saver (out of Magic Appeal by Successful Appeal) finished the year with a 17-1-1 record to this point in her 23-race career, which began with six starts in Mexico for trainer Fausto Gutierrez. Her connections at St. George Stable have decided to race her as a six-year-old, the Breeders’ Cup Distaff or perhaps even the Classic being the obvious targets.

Shadwell Stable’s Malathaat added three victories, a place and a show in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff to compile a career 6-1-1 record in her eight starts and win as Champion Three-Year-Old Filly. The royally bred daughter of Curlin (out of Dreaming Of Julia by A.P. Indy) counted three G1 wins—the Kentucky Oaks, the Alabama and the Ashland Stakes as her championship year victories.

The phenomenal filly Echo Zulu captured 233 of the 235 first-place votes—what were those two voters thinking?—rocketing off with honors as Champion Two-Year-Old Filly. She’s been so impressive, with three easy G1 wins in her undefeated four-race career so far, many are hoping connections will opt for her to make a Run For The Roses against the boys on May 7.

The surprise might have been the win as Champion Turf Female by Japan’s Loves Only You. It’s not a surprise because of the horse’s accomplishments, but rather because she raced only once in the U.S., winning the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf.

In the past, voters have been reluctant to award a Breeders’ Cup Day invader for a one-race accomplishment. Beloved Champion Goldikova won three consecutive Breeders’ Cup Mile contests (2008-10) and, though nominated, was never accorded the honor.

The close contest that wasn’t was for Champion Female Sprinter. Five-year-old Ce Ce won the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint over heavily favored Bob Baffert-trained Gamine, the latter suffering an off-day at Del Mar Nov. 6. That was enough for voters to opt for the daughter of Elusive Quality as Champion Female Sprinter in a 136-97 first-place vote.

Baffert did not go away empty handed. Corniche easily swept to victory as the Champion Two-Year-Old Male. Though a winner of his three starts including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he was denied points awarded to that race for the Kentucky Derby. Baffert is currently suspended through 2023 for racing and stabling at Churchill Downs properties and his horses are currently ineligible for Derby participation.

Corniche’s connections have remained loyal to Baffert over the controversy regarding recently deceased Medina Spirit’s Kentucky Derby win and subsequent positive test for the raceday banned substance betamethasone, but may have to switch barns if they want to see their charge in the gates at Churchill Downs in May.

Jackie’s Warrior fought his way to Champion Male Sprinter kudos. He now has a 8-1-1 record after settling in at a shorter distance over his 12 starts.

Another Godolphin, Yibir took home the grass male trophy. The Dubawi colt raced twice in the U.S. this year, winning the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). He enjoyed a stellar year that saw him also win four graded races in England for trainer, Charlie Appleby.

In the often overlooked Champion Steeplechase category, The Mean Queen starred down 210 of 212 voters to cart away honors.

The “people” categories saw Cox repeat as Champion trainer as mentioned on the strength of an outstanding year training both Knicks Go and Essential Quality.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has two trophies set aside for FedEx delivery 8,000 miles away in Dubai as Godolphin flew home with both the Champion Owner and Breeder awards.

Jockeys are half of the racing duo and a duo took home their first. Joel Rosario won his first Champion Jockey Eclipse Award.

For only the third time in the 51-year history of the Eclipse Awards (Rosemary Homeister, 1992; Emma-Jayne Wilson, 2005), a woman, Jessica Pyfer, racing in the competitive California circuit, was named Outstanding Apprentice Jockey. Pyfer passed up law school and a future as an attorney for a career in the saddle—go figure.

The Eclipse Awards are North America’s highest racing honor. They are voted by members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Daily Racing Form and the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters.

Feature image: ©NYRA