Trio of finalists make horse of the year race too close to call

California Chrome, left, ridden by Victor Espinoza, was out in front on the last turn, en route to winning the Kentucky Derby last year. He is an Eclipse Award finalist for horse of the year.
California Chrome, left, ridden by Victor Espinoza, was out in front on the last turn, en route to winning the Kentucky Derby last year. He is an Eclipse Award finalist for horse of the year. Herald-Leader

What figures to be one of the closest races for horse of the year in recent seasons comes down to two brilliant 3-year-olds and a turf standout, as dual classic winner California Chrome, Breeders' Cup Classic hero Bayern and multiple Grade I winner Main Sequence were announced Wednesday as 2014 Eclipse Award finalists for the top honor.

The finalists for all 17 horse and human categories for the 44th annual Eclipse Awards were revealed on HRTV; winners will be honored Jan. 17 at Gulfstream Park Racing and Casino in Hallandale Beach, Fla.

Of the 280 eligible voters representing the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters and the Daily Racing Form, 265 (94.6 percent) took part in the voting for this year's awards. Finalists in each category are the voters' top three selections, using a points basis of 10-5-1. Eclipse Award winners are determined solely by first-place votes.

Along with being finalists for their respective divisional honors, California Chrome, Bayern and Main Sequence all make viable cases for Horse of the Year.

California Chrome, which, with Bayern and 2013 juvenile champion Shared Belief, is a finalist for champion 3-year-old male, was the darling of the racing world off his victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. Though Chrome lost three straight races during the second half of the year — including a third-place finish behind Bayern in the Breeders' Cup Classic — he ended his season with a victory in the Grade I Hollywood Derby in his first try on turf, giving him six wins from nine outings in 2014.

Bayern didn't make his career debut until Jan. 4, 2014, but he put together a versatile campaign in which the Bob Baffert-trainee won six of 10 starts at eight tracks, winning graded stakes at distances from 7 furlongs to 11/4 miles. Bayern prevailed by 71/4 lengths in the Grade I Haskell Invitational and scored a gate-to-wire victory in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, though that win was tainted by controversy as he survived a stewards' inquiry for coming sharply over into previously unbeaten Shared Belief at the start of the race.

Main Sequence arrived in the states last year after making his first 14 career starts in England and was almost immediately felled by a bout of pneumonia that kept him in a New York clinic for a month.

Once recovered, the 5-year-old gelding put together a four-for-four 2014 campaign under the guidance of trainer Graham Motion, notching all his victories in Grade I races, culminating with a half-length triumph over international rivals in the Breeders' Cup Turf.

In addition to being in the running for horse of the year, Main Sequence is a finalist and favorite to take home honors in the champion turf male and champion older male divisions.

Should Main Sequence sweep all three categories, he would emulate two-time defending Horse of the Year Wise Dan, which has won those three honors the past two seasons. Wise Dan, unbeaten in four starts in 2014 despite undergoing emergency colic surgery in May and suffering an ankle injury in October, joins Main Sequence as a finalist for older male and turf male.

While the most notable omissions among the finalists were Motion for outstanding trainer and the late Juan Saez for outstanding apprentice jockey, the categories were largely devoid of surprises.

Winchell Thoroughbreds' Untapable, winner of six of seven starts in 2014, including the Kentucky Oaks and Breeders' Cup Distaff, is likely to be a unanimous pick for champion 3-year-old filly.

Dayatthespa, winner of the Grade I First Lady at Keene land and Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf, is a strong favorite to earn champion turf female honors and is also a finalist with Grade I winners Close Hatches and Don't Tell Sophia for champion older female.

Nicholasville-based Ken and Sarah Ramsey, who swept the Eclipse Awards for outstanding owner and outstanding breeder for 2013, are again finalists in those categories. The Ramseys led all owners by earnings ($10,544,148), stakes wins (29) and graded stakes wins (10) in 2014, and their Grade I-winning mare Stephanie's Kitten is among the Eclipse finalists for champion turf female.