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The best of 2021, through one scribe’s Eclipse Award ballot

One of my favorite things about turning the page on a new year is the opportunity it affords to revisit the one just past.

In this space, that means reliving a few brief shining moments of 2021 that might have been overlooked or underappreciated during what overall was a tough year for the sport of horse racing.

My annual trip down memory lane comes from doing my homework before voting in the annual Eclipse Awards, which will be presented Feb. 10 at Santa Anita Park.

So sit back and enjoy a few good memories from the year that was:

Horse of the Year

and Older Dirt Male

It’s hard for me to see either of these trophies going to anyone other than Knicks Go. The Brad Cox-trained 5-year-old won five of his six U.S. starts, capped by a relatively easy victory in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. Foes always knew he was going to follow the advice of legendary East Coast trainer “Father Bill” Daly, who history has it told some forgotten jockey to “go to the front and improve your position,” but none could do anything about it at distances of 1⅛th or 1¼ miles. We should get to see him in action one more time later this month in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational. I had Maxfield second and Silver State third.

Older Dirt Female

Letruska deserves the laurels for her body of work, which included six graded-stakes victories for Mexico-based trainer Fausto Gutierrez, four of them Grade 1s. Shedaresthedevil was my second choice, with As Time Goes By in third.

2-year-old honors

In the colts division, the Bob Baffert-trained Corniche seems a shoo-in, unless there’s some sort of protest vote because of the controversy hanging over the Hall of Fame trainer from Medina Spirit’s still unresolved drug positive after winning the Kentucky Derby. This colt did nothing wrong in a three-for-three season that culminated with a win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. In the fillies division, you can’t look past Echo Zulu, who finished the year with four wins from four starts, including a waltz in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.

3-year-olds

This was probably the closest call for me, but Essential Quality got my vote as the top colt. He won five of seven starts, most notably the Belmont and Travers Stakes. Medina Spirit was a close second, in my estimation, even though he finished ahead of Essential Quality both times they met. The ill-fated colt, who died after completing a workout on Dec. 6 and remains the Kentucky Derby winner for now, won three graded stakes, however, to Essential Quality’s five. Life is Good, the best miler, and Jackie’s Warrior, the best sprinter, both deserve accolades as well, but my third placing went to the former. In the fillies division, I gave it to Malathaat, winner of three Grade 1s and never off the board in five starts. I could see some opting for Going Global, a five-time graded stakes winner in California who seems the only legitimate threat.

And the rest

My other top equine selections: Sprint: Jackie’s Warrior, narrowly over Aloha West and Golden Pal; Female Sprint: Gamine, with Ce Ce and Bella Sophia in the minor placings; Male Turf: Colonel Liam by a whisker over Domestic Spending and Smooth Like Strait; Female Turf: the late Santa Barbara, over Althiqa and Going Global.

For the humans: Cox repeats as top conditioner, edging out new all-time winningest trainer Steve Asmussen. Don’t see how you could deny Joel Rosario his first Eclipse Award as top rider, given he nearly broke the all-time earnings record. Jessica Pyfer was top apprentice, riding in the tough Southern California colony. Time to recognize Godolphin as Owner and Breeder of the Year, after the stable run by the ruling family of Dubai topped nearly every category. A special nod, though, to Maryland breeder Angie Moore, who produced Knicks Go at her modest Greenmount Farm operation.

Mike Brunker’s horse racing column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.

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