By Bob Ehalt
Hallandale Beach, Fla. – Once again, to little surprise, it was the year’s Triple Crown champion who proved to be Thoroughbred racing’s brightest star.
At Thursday’s 48th annual Eclipse Awards, the retired Justify (Scat Daddy) added Horse of the Year and Champion 3-Year-Old Male laurels to a sterling resume that will be forever topped by his stature as the sport’s 13th Triple Crown champion.
WinStar Farm owner Kenny Troutt, in accepting the Horse of the Year trophy for Justify on behalf of his partners China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing, expressed thanks to everyone involved in the undefeated 3-year-old and was thankful for the joy the sport has brought to his family.
“Horse racing and this farm has been a blessing and has brought my family together,” Troutt said during a rather brief acceptance speech that lasted only about a minute-and-a-half and closed out an amazingly quick program. “My wife and our three kids just love horse racing. It’s been a blessing.”
Surprisingly, Justify did not have the coattails of past Triple Crown/Horse of the Year recipients as the only other members of Team Justify to be honored at the black-tie Gulfstream Park affair were breeder John D. Gunther and Justify’s win in the GI Belmont S., which was voted the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Moment of the Year.
In accepting his Eclipse Award as the Outstanding Breeder, Gunther voiced sincere thanks to his daughter, Tanya.
“It is such an honor to achieve this award and if not for my daughter, I would not be standing here,” Gunther said.
Fittingly, the NTRA Moment of the Year produced one of the more humorous moments of the night when Master of Ceremonies Jeannine Edwards presented the award to Jack Wolf, managing partner and CEO of Starlight Racing. In handing the trophy to Wolf, she asked him if he knew about the significance of 6:52 on the trophy.
A confused Wolf said, “No.”
Edwards then explained that 6:52 was the time when Justify crossed the finish line in the Belmont, eliciting a laugh from Wolf, whose nickname may now be Jack “6:52” Wolf.
There were several light-hearted moments, highlighted by the speech of longtime Del Mar Thoroughbred Club head Joe Harper in receiving the Eclipse Award of Merit.
Harper started by thanking his parents for imparting some “wisdom” on him.
“After flunking out of college for the third time, I was concerned about what to tell my parents, so I tried the truth. I said to my dad, ‘Sorry, Dad, flunked out again, I think I’m just not that smart,’ and he said, ‘Your mother and I figured that out a long time ago, but you were smart enough to figure that out so here’s some advice for you, always try to surround yourself with people smarter than you.’ That turned out to be fairly easy at first but when I got to Del Mar that became more difficult because I needed some really smart people. I can’t tell you how much this award means to Del Mar.”
In thanking the many people who worked for him at Del Mar, Harper also managed to work in a little dig at another California track.
“It just came to me, half of those people were fired at Santa Anita. All you racetrack managers out there, if you need some good and talented people, just go down to the Arcadia unemployment office. They’re all there. Racing secretaries, race callers.”
While some Eclipse Awards ceremonies have dragged on longer than Justify’s career, the 48th edition was streamlined and completed in about 1:39. Some speeches were limited to a minute, making the night’s busiest people the band members who began playing when some recipients exceeded their time.
The champion in that division was Sol Kumin of Monomoy Stable, who owns Champion 3-Year-Old Filly Monomoy Girl (Tapizar).
In starting his speech, Kumin warned, “There’s no shot at doing this in a minute. Not with this group.”
True to his word, Kumin was able to thank trainer Brad Cox for giving the filly “unbelievable care” and Liz Crow of BSW Bloodstock for signing the $100,000 sale slip for Monomoy Girl at the 2016 Keeneland September sale before the music started.
The music grew louder as Kumin tried to add praise for jockey Florent Geroux and then as he tried to squeeze in kudos for few other folks, the nominations for the Champion 3-Year-Old Male started rolling and he waived the white flag.
“I understand the process of trying to shorten the speeches, but it seemed a little bit short to me. You have all these people who have spent a lot of money and time trying to find a great horse and finally get a chance to be in the spotlight and a minute is a little aggressive. I hope they expand that a little bit to say two minutes.”
As for the thank-yous that could not be heard, Kumin said, “I was going for Florent when I stopped. I wanted to thank Paul Sharp for breaking the filly. Her groom Darwin Agular and exercise rider Mario Garcia, too, and I was going to thank my dad, Steve Kumin. He got cut off. He showed up from Boston. We’ve always had a tight relationship and the last few years we’ve traveled around the world together for races.”
The music started playing for Chad Brown while he was in the midst of his speech after winning a third straight Eclipse Award as the leading trainer, but he tugged at the heartstrings for a few extra moments.
“You’re not going to cut me off while I’m thanking my kids, are you?” Brown said.
Harper had the best way of stopping the clock on his speech.
“I paid off the band,” he said. “Three minutes, okay.”
The quick hook brought back memories for Jonathan Green, who owns 2-Year-Old Champion Filly Jaywalk (Cross Traffic) with his father, Leonard, and his mother, Lois, and Cash is King LLC.
“A long time ago, my mother was the leading owner at Keystone Park and she talked for 15 minutes,” he said. “She won the award the next year and they mailed it to her.”
Perhaps the most priceless moment came when the award for the Outstanding Jockey went to Irad Ortiz, Jr., the brother of 2017’s Eclipse Award-winning jockey, Jose Ortiz. Irad walked on stage with his young daughter Sarai who waved and posed for the crowd as her father talked from the heart.
“I want to thank my family for their support and I want to dedicate this trophy to a very special person, my brother (Jose) who dedicated his (Eclipse Award) to me a year ago,” Irad said. “This is for him. Love you, bro. And I know the happiest person in the room right now is my dad. Thank you, Dad.”