Predicting the Eclipse Award for Male Turf Champion in 2018 is no easy task. The division is wide open. In a year like this, what happens late in the season will most likely sway the voters one way or the other. The most important turf race run in America to date has been the Arlington Million. In a Chad Brown-trained exacta, the Chilean-bred Robert Bruce flew home to get past his stablemate, Almanaar for the victory. If the season ended today, I believe that result at Arlington Park would be enough for Robert Bruce to be named champion. Of course, the season does not end today.
Several key races within the division remain, not the least of which will be a pair of big races on the November 3 card at Churchill Downs. The Breeders’ Cup Turf and the Breeders’ Cup Mile should go a long way towards deciding things, but with a strong contingent of European turf specialists expected for the World Championships, it is far from a guarantee that an American-based runner will win either. That being said, the preps for these races become very important from an Eclipse Award standpoint.
Saturday at Belmont, Robert Bruce will put his tenuous lead in the division to the test in the 12 furlong Joe Hirsch Turf Classic. The four-year-old son of Fast Company was a terror in his native Chile, going a perfect 6-for-6 in 2017. He kept his unblemished record intact with a first-out win in the United States, when taking the Grade 3 Fort Marcy back in early May, but suffered his first defeat in a contentious edition of the Manhattan on the Belmont Stakes undercard. He started a new winning streak last time with a powerful rally in the Arlington Million.
Robert Bruce looked like a million bucks in Suburban Chicago, but things will get no easier in his next two. He will need to win at least one of the two in order to have a legitimate shot at the title. The Joe Hirsch Turf Classic will be his first test at 1 1/2 miles in America, although he did it once in Chile. It will also include a solid field with graded stakes winners like Sadler’s Joy, Spring Quality, Hi Happy, and Carrick. Another win on Saturday will solidify his position as the division leader before he tackles an even bigger assignment in the BC Turf.
If Robert Bruce stubs his toe along the way, I see Oscar Performance as the horse most likely to step up and win the championship. In fact, all the speedy son of Kitten’s Joy may need to do for an Eclipse Award is win the Breeders’ Cup Mile, and have either a European runner, or a longshot, take home the Breeders’ Cup. Both of which could happen.
The Brian Lynch trained runner is in that position after bouncing back in style one race following being pulled up as the favorite in the Arlington Million. Before his trip to Chicago, he had set a course record at Belmont Park in his seasonal debut. The return to form came in a win in the Grade 1 Woodbine Mile in typically impressive fashion. The winner of seven graded stakes races already in his career, never looked better than he did last time in Canada.
Getting back to that Arlington Million result, the second-place finisher ran a big race that afternoon, and perhaps still needed it a bit, having only one race under his belt after a 16-month layoff. Almanaar, a six-year-old gelded son of Dubawi has every right to move forward off that effort, and will get a chance to prove how classy he is when he takes on a strong field at Keeneland in the Grade 1 Shadwell Mile on October 6.
Two of the more interesting candidates for Male Turf Champion would be Catholic Boy and Yoshida. The former won rousing editions of the Pennine Ridge and Belmont Derby, while the latter was impressive in winning the Grade 1 Old Forester Turf Classic at Churchill Downs, before making the trip over to Royal Ascot. Since then, though, both colts have found a new home on the dirt, winning big races at Saratoga. Off those efforts, both Catholic Boy and Yoshida look to be headed to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. So with dirt as their main goals, it certainly appears that their turf credentials will fall short of an Eclipse Award.
Then you have Glorious Empire. At age 7, the son of Holy Roman Emperor has seemingly come from nowhere in his last two starts. First he dead-heated for the win in the Bowling Green, then he followed that up with a brave victory in the Grade 1 Sword Dancer. The pair of wins, both at Saratoga, are enough to put the reformed claimer in this race.
Other runners with solid credentials on the grass so far this year, include Heart to Heart, Spring Quality, and Itsinthepost. The last on that list won no less than four Grade 2 races on the turf this year, but finished well back in his last two and has been put away for the year. The other two, though, are still very much alive in this wide open division.
Heart to Heart, who like Oscar Performance is trained by Brian Lynch, disappointed in his last, but before that he added his first two grade 1 victories to his stellar career past performances. Look for him to take another shot at the Shadwell Mile, a race which he finished second in last year. Spring Quality, meanwhile, has a big win over Robert Bruce in the Grade 1 Manhattan. The Graham Motion charge will get the chance to add another important victory to his resume when he takes on the Chilean import in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic.
Photo of Robert Bruce courtesy of Coady Photography