Finalists for the 2002 horse of the year were announced Friday, and the bag couldn't be more mixed: Azeri, who's trying to become the first female champion in 16 years; Left Bank, who has died; the erratic War Emblem; and Rock Of Gibraltar, undefeated in Europe but a colt who didn't win a race in the U.S.
The 303 votes -- three groups that include turf writers, the Daily Racing Form, and a combination of track racing secretaries with the people who officially chart the races -- have already been cast, but the results won't be known until the Eclipse awards dinner on Jan. 27 in Beverly Hills.
If there is a tipoff to the outcome, it was that Azeri collected all the votes for divisional honors, in the competition among 4-year-old fillies. But some horse-of-the-year voters have expressed a reluctance to support a filly who, despite winning eight of nine starts and romping home in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, never left her division to face male opposition. The last female horse of the year, Lady's Secret, beat males in 1986.
While the winners of most of the divisions appear obvious, horse of the year has been a riddle for many voters. Early in the year, Left Bank was headed for a big season when he won three of four starts, including the Whitney Handicap in August, but after that he underwent surgery for colic and didn't survive the recuperation period. The Whitney was Left Bank's only win beyond seven furlongs.
Rock Of Gibraltar won five consecutive Grade I grass races in England, Ireland and France, but in the Breeders' Cup Mile, at Arlington Park in October, he was victimized by a tardy start and a tentative ride from Mike Kinane. A desperate late burst in the stretch still left the colt three-quarters of a length short of the longshot Domedriver at the wire. A horse without a U.S. win has never been horse of the year, and Kotashaan, in 1993, is the only grass horse to win the title in the last 17 years.
For three years in a row, horse of the year has gone to a 3-year-old -- Charismatic, Tiznow and Point Given -- and in August, War Emblem was on his way to the 2002 title. He had won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and rebounded from his loss in the Belmont to capture the Haskell, before his season soured. He bottomed out in his last two starts, including an eighth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Volponi, the Classic winner, had no other Grade I wins and isn't likely to even win the older-male division.
War Emblem (3-year-old male), Farda Amiga (3-year-old filly), Left Bank (older male), Vindication (2-year-old male), Storm Flag Flying (2-year-old female) and Orientate (sprinter) are favored to win titles. Finalists in the contentious grass divisions are Rock Of Gibraltar, High Chaparral and With Anticipation on the male side and Golden Apples, Astra and Starine among the distaffers. Starine won only one race, but it was over Golden Apples in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf.
If the horsemen awards go to the favorites, Bobby Frankel will win a third consecutive Eclipse and jockey Jerry Bailey will win his sixth Eclipse in eight years. Frankel has won three Eclipses, and another win would tie him with Laz Barrera and Wayne Lukas. Bailey and Pincay are the only jockeys with five Eclipses since the program began in 1971.
Golden Apples will be out of training for about a month after undergoing surgery for the removal of bone chips in her ankles.... Old Trieste, winner of stakes in California at ages 2, 3 and 4, was euthanized Thursday at Darley Jonabell Farm after a battle with laminitis, a circulatory hoof disease. Old Trieste, an 8-year-old, is also remembered for one of the fastest pre-Kentucky Derby workouts when he was clocked in 1:09 for six furlongs six days before the 1998 race. Old Trieste then ran one of the fastest opening half-miles in Derby history before finishing 10th.... Jerry Bailey finished the year with 67 stakes wins, one less than the record set by Mike Smith in 1994.... Pat Valenzuela has appealed a three-day suspension that was to have started at Santa Anita on Wednesday. Valenzuela can ride until his appeal is heard.