Nominations for the 2020 Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer come down to three accomplished individuals, two of them multiple previous winners and a newcomer.  Bob Baffert won this award in 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2015.  Steve Asmussen won in 2008 and 2009.  Up-and-coming Brad Cox is the other candidate. 

Todd Pletcher remains the all-time leader in Eclipse trainer awards with seven, followed by the late Bobby Frankel with five.  Chad Brown has four awards, encompassing 2016-2019, and D. Wayne Lukas and the late Laz Barrera also have four.

Voters for the Eclipse Award for best trainer are basically left to establish their own criteria for making the selection, as there are no specifics to go by. As a result, some voters may, for example, believe that either Baffert or Asmusssen deserves the award, but still opt to vote for Cox on the basis that he is much younger and has never won.  Other voters may feel that the most deserving trainer should be recognized irrespective of whether he has won in the past.

Certainly, all three candidates had meritorious records in 2020 or they would not have been nominated.  Thus a voter could make a strong case for any of them.  With that said, my personal opinion is that Bob Baffert should receive the nod for his work with Authentic in winning the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic, plus narrowly losing the Preakness.

Moreover, the “Authentic effect” should net John Velazquez the award for outstanding jockey and Authentic Horse of the Year.  It took a highly skilled veteran like Velazquez to win 1 ¼ races like the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic with a colt that was best suited to slightly shorter distances, especially with front-running tactics.

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Andy Serling, a television handicapper for the New York Racing Association, recently opined (on At the Races with Steve Byk) that people whose job it is to recommend horses to bet on should have skin in the game.  That is, they should risk their own money on their picks.  What percentage of the on-air hosts at the various racetracks and at TVG do so is unknown, but the guess here is that the percentage is very small.

Is Mr. Serling correct?  I believe he is, with one modification: analysts should at least reveal to viewers if they have backed each and every pick with a bet.

On Cable television shows like Fox Business or CNBC, whenever guest analysts appear to discuss and recommend stocks to buy, a graphic is often shown to viewers depicting whether the analyst or a member of his/her family own a stock being endorsed.  If the analyst does not own a position, the obvious question is why not?  If he or she does have an ownership stake, this signals confidence in the pick or, alternatively, that the analyst may be hyping the stock to run up its price.  If an analyst’s ownership position is not revealed at all, his or her recommendation is manifestly not as credible.

Before purchasing a company’s stock, a skilled investor knows to access publicly available information pertaining to how many shares of the company’s stock insiders hold.  A large ownership stake by executives and board members is a favorable finding whereas token ownership or selling signals caution.  Recent purchasing activity by insiders is another indicator of the confidence they have in the company’s future.

Over time, a horse bettor following the picks of a TV analyst can judge the analyst’s skill.  But it would be informative if the analyst were to let viewers know whether he or she personally has backed a horse and even for how much money.

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Throughout 2020, horse racing around the globe was, for the most part, able to operate without fans in attendance.  The same is true so far in 2021.  For example, although British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has locked down the nation until at least mid-February due to a spike in coronavirus cases, horse racing is allowed to proceed.  Likewise, In Ireland, government authorities have restricted or temporarily banned most sporting events, with horse racing being one of the few exceptions. 

Technology that allows fans to conveniently watch and bet remotely with top horse racing sites has enabled horse racing to avoid the shutdowns and severe financial difficulties of sporting events that depend heavily on ticket and concession revenues from in-person fans.  Prior to the pandemic of 2020, the majority of pari-mutuel handle came from off-track betting and this turned out to be a huge advantage in weathering the pandemic storm. 

It will take time for the world to vaccinate enough people to return to a semblance of pre-pandemic conditions, so most sporting events for winter 2021 are likely to ban or limit the number of fans in attendance, or cancel.  Fortunately, horse racing aficionados can look forward to a winter of premier cards from the United States, Great Britain, and the Mideast.

The calendar kicks off with the Pegasus World Cup Invitational and the Pegasus World Cup Invitational Turf from Gulfstream Park in Florida on January 23.  The former is contested on dirt with a $3 million purse and the latter is a $1 million race on grass.

Then, the spotlight turns to King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for races held on February 19 and 20.  The second renewal of the Saudi Cup, the world’s richest race with a purse of $20 million, is the feature on February 20.  Over the two-days of racing, purses are worth an astonishing $30.5 million.  In 2020, 64 foreign entries from ten countries competed in seven international races and culminated with the Saudi Cup.

On March 27, the Dubai World Cup is set to return after being cancelled in 2020.  Nine races with $35 million in purses are run on a single day at Meyden Racecourse.  The showcase is the $12 million Dubai World Cup.

Steeplechase or “jump” fans always look forward to the four-day, 28-race Cheltenham Festival in England, which is scheduled for March 16-19.  The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the most prestigious race.  It is highly problematic whether fans will be able to attend, but, if not, they can watch and bet remotely.

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