It had to be American Pharoah’s night, because it was American Pharoah’s year.
The first Triple Crown winner since 1978 was the unanimous choice as Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male at the 45th annual Eclipse Awards ceremonies Saturday night at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Florida. Voters represented the Daily Racing Form, the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.
“I’m just glad American Pharoah came along in my lifetime,’’ Bob Baffert said Friday. “I was privileged to train a horse like that. I just feel he was a gift from God.’’
Baffert earned his fourth Eclipse, and his first since 1999, and Ahmed Zayat, Pharoah’s owner and breeder, won both categories. Only jockey Javier Castellano prevented a Team Pharoah sweep. It was the third consecutive Eclipse for the 38-year-old Venezuelan. Tyler Gaffalione was champion apprentice rider.
Not since Secretariat in 1973 had an America-based thoroughbred become such a mainstream obsession. There were millions of Pharoahites, and many never had attended a horse race or paid attention to the sport. Like Big Red, Pharoah swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes and climaxed his 3-year-old season with a runaway. Pharoah’s Breeders’ Cup Classic triumph Oct. 31 at Keeneland completed an unprecedented Grand Slam. It was his seventh win of 2015, and he ran courageously in his only defeat, a second to Keen Ice in Saratoga’s Travers Stakes.
Fans voted the Belmont the NTRA’s Moment of the Year, and Baffert accepted the award Friday at Gulfstream. It’s a glass timepiece set to 6:55 p.m., the glorious minute when Pharoah crossed the finish line to a deafening roar in Elmont. To NTRA executive Keith Chamblin, “American Pharoah’s Belmont win was more than the NTRA moment of the year; for many of us racing fans, it was the moment of a lifetime.’’
That opinion was unanimous, too.
The other equine winners were Songbird (2-year-old filly); Nyquist (2-year-old male); Dawalan (steeplechaser); Stellar Wind (3-year-old filly); La Verdad (female sprinter); Runhappy (male sprinter); Tepin (female turf); Big Blue Kitten (male turf); Beholder (older female) and Honor Code (older male).
John O’Neil, 75, of Huntington Station was Horseplayer of the Year for winning the National Handicapping Championship last January in Las Vegas. Reporters Jennie Rees and Tim Sullivan and photographer Michael Clevenger, all of the Louisville Courier-Journal, won awards, as did photographer Scott Serio.