The last time Ricky Hendriks went to the Eclipse Awards with a chance – a real chance – to win was after the 1982 racing season. He was 18 years old, and – as the jockey of steeplechase star Zaccio – actually knew he was going to win.
“Back then they would tell you the winners so we knew we won, or everyone I was with acted like they knew,” said Hendriks, who flew to host city San Francisco with Daily Racing Form writer Ann Barker. At the awards ceremony, at the historic Fairmont Hotel, Conquistador Cielo was crowned Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old. Cozzene won the award as the year’s top turf horse with Fred Hooper (breeder), Viola Summer (owner), Charlie Whittingham (trainer) and Angel Cordero Jr. (jockey) taking home prizes. Zaccio’s team, led by owners Lewis and Bunny Murdock and Hall of Fame trainer Burley Cocks, accepted a third consecutive Eclipse. Hendriks, aboard for the final three of Zaccio’s four wins on the season, went along for the ride.
Years later, as a trainer, Hendriks attended the dinner when Tres Touche was a finalist for the steeplechase Eclipse but didn’t have much hope of unseating the likes of Flat Top or McDynamo.
Everything will be a bit different this year.
Hendriks is the trainer of steeplechase Eclipse finalists Zanjabeel and Optimus Prime. They’re joined by Jury Duty in the final three, but should duke it out for the award when it’s presented Thursday night at Gulfstream Park in Florida. Zanjabeel was the only steeplechaser to win two Grade 1 stakes in 2018 and finished second in his other two starts (a Grade 1 and a Grade 2) on the year. In just three starts, Optimus Prime won twice (including a Grade 1) but was beaten by Zanjabeel in Belmont Park’s Lonesome Glory. Irish runner Jury Duty made one American start, winning the $450,000 Grand National.
Nobody’s letting on who won, and Hendriks won’t care which of his horses gets the crown – though he leans a bit toward Zanjabeel.
“I hope he wins, he won two Grade 1’s, his record was pretty good when you look at it and he had a good year,” said the Pennsylvanian. “It’s so exciting to have two horses as finalists. The suspense. I can’t believe the day is finally coming.”
English-bred Zanjabeel came to the U.S. in October 2017 and won a novice hurdle stakes at Far Hills for Irish trainer Gordon Elliott. Hendriks and owner George Mahoney purchased the son of Aussie Rules out of that race, and capped 2017 with another novice win at Callaway Gardens in November.
Racing for Mahoney’s Rosbrian Farm and the Meadow Run Farm of Ben Griswold IV, Zanjabeel stormed through 2018 – finishing second to runaway leader Balance The Budget in the Grade 1 Colonial Cup in March, settling for the second spot again in the Grade 2 Temple Gwathmey in April, taking the spring’s biggest prize in the Grade 1 Iroquois in May (by 5 emphatic lengths) and adding the Lonesome Glory at Belmont Park (over Optimus Prime) in September. A tendon injury cost the now 6-year-old a start in the Grand National, but he put together the most complete season.
French-bred Optimus Prime, owned by Rosbrian Farm, made a big impression in just two months of American racing – winning the Turf Writers at Saratoga in August, finished third in the Lonesome Glory and winning the Grade 2 Zeke Ferguson at Great Meadow in October.
So who’s better?
“That’s a good question,” Hendriks said. “To compare the two horses, Optimus Prime has a quicker turn of foot. He’s probably faster. The other horse has a higher cruising speed. He can maintain it and just grinds it out. That’s what he did in the Iroquois and that’s what he did at Belmont. The other horse got pinched off at Belmont, had a couple excuses and didn’t get to run his best race, but Zanjabeel was going to be tough to get by. We’ll never know how it would have turned out.”
The Eclipse votes will have to settle it.
As for now, Zanjabeel is rehabbing that tendon injury with Wendy and Travis Kinnamon in Pennsylvania. The horse walks 45 minutes a day on a free-walker and Hendriks hopes to make the Grand National in October.
“He’s on the mend,” said Hendriks. “As far as bowed tendons go it wasn’t a bad one. He’s very easy going, an easy keeper. So far everything is going well.”
Now 7, Optimus Prime looks to return for the spring with eyes squarely focused on Saratoga.
“He’s getting a little rest right now, but goes back into training pretty soon,” said Hendriks. “I’m not sure if we’ll try to make Middleburg (in April) or the Gold Cup (in May). The (3-mile) Iroquois is probably not the best race for him. Saratoga is perfect.”
Hendriks isn’t the only former jump jockey with an Eclipse finalist this year as Chuck Lawrence hopes to take home a bronze statue with Glorious Empire in the turf division. Like Hendriks, Lawrence worked for Cocks coming up and rode an Eclipse winner in 1994 champion Warm Spell.
“I didn’t make the dinner though so this will be my first one,” said Lawrence. “It’s pretty cool. We’re really looking forward to it. It was the furthest thing from my mind January 1 of last year I can tell you that.”
Glorious Empire wasn’t even in Lawrence’s barn last Janaury, but finished 2018 with four wins (including the Grade 1 Sword Dancer, Grade 2 Bowling Green and Grade 2 Ft. Lauderdale) and $767,830 earned. Owned by Matt Schera, the now 8-year-old English-bred will compete with turf sprinter Stormy Liberal for the Eclipse.
“It’s a hell of an honor just be a finalist,” said Lawrence, whose horse (like Zanjabeel) is on the shelf with an injury and will miss a planned start in the rich Pegasus World Cup Turf this weekend. “He’s got a little suspensory, but he’s loving life – he’s in the stall right across from my tack room – getting lots of love and seems to be handling it fine so far. We’re trying to give him every opportunity to come back to graded status.”
Lawrence, like Hendriks, couldn’t help but think of time spent in Cocks’ barn years ago. Cocks was a horseman’s horseman, who helped launch the careers of Mikey Smithwick, Jonathan Sheppard, Billy Turner and dozens of others in a career spanning parts of seven decades. Cocks, who died in 1998, would enjoy the moment.
“How incredible is that?” Lawrence said. “What an unbelievable legacy that man has. He would love it.”
Hendriks took it a step further, including Cocks, Dicky Hendriks (who died in 2010) and Jim Lawrence (2015).
“Mr. Cocks would be so proud of us,” Hendriks said. “Mr. Cocks, my father and Chuck’s father are all pretty proud right now.”
Hosted by Jeannine Edwards, the Eclipse Awards will be televised live by TVG, starting at 8 p.m. Thursday.