12/26/2001 1:00AM

The ballot-box horse race


ARCADIA, Calif. - For 280 serious observers of the Thoroughbred racing scene, the holidays have been a terrible distraction. Sitting there on the desk, amid the piles of Visa receipts and Christmas cards returned to sender, a steamy package from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association has been screaming out for attention.

It is the official ballot for the election of 2001 Eclipse Award winners, and now it can be confronted. Good luck.

This year, the fate of the champions rests with the well-informed judgment of 152 members of the National Turf Writers Association, 75 representatives of NTRA racetracks, and 53 editors, writers, and handicappers who work for the Daily Racing Form.

This is not like the Oscars, which are selected by peers and powerful insiders, nor is it like the Major League All Stars, which are chosen by fans and managers. The horses and people who win Eclipse Awards must sufficiently impress a bunch of men and women who have nothing more at stake than bragging rights at the local pub.

To their credit, most of them take the process very seriously. Okay, there was the guy who basically voted "none of the above" in the 1985 Horse of the Year balloting by inserting the name of Come on the Blues, better known as the traveling companion of champion turf mare Pebbles. And one highly respected columnist once threw up his hands at the choice of a champion trainer and voted for Berkley Kern. Yes, that Berkley Kern.

Ballots are due this time around on Jan. 4, either by fax or snail-mail. But before they are sent off, however, the electorate must unscramble the many mysteries of the 2001 racing season, including the identity of the Horse of the Year.

"I'm thrilled to be able to participate," said Steve Chaplin, a freelance writer whose work on racing appears frequently in the Louisville Courier-Journal. "Especially this year, when there are some very tough decisions in several categories."

Chaplin is among the freshmen class of voters, first-timers who get to weigh the relative merits of Point Given and Tiznow for Horse of the Year, Tempera and Habibti among 2-year-old fillies, and a herd of 3-year-old fillies that includes Flute, Exogenous, Unbridled Elaine, Golden Ballet, and Xtra Heat. Even for veteran Eclipse voters, this year's choices are difficult.

"I almost wish there was some kind of rule book to consult," Chaplin said. "I'd like to know what kind of philosophy has gone into making past decisions."

It may be best not to ask. Among the decision-making tools employed by Eclipse Award voters over the past 30 years have been dart boards, divining rods, regional prejudice, spite and revenge, as well as that time-honored technique, "Here, fill this out for me." Chaplin said he will revert to good, old-fashioned handicapping.

"I've already been talking to my handicapping buddies, finding out what they think," Chaplin said. "I've got friends who consider themselves specialists in all the categories, so I'll see what they think. It looks like I'll need at least a day and a half."

Chaplin was up front about any personal prejudices. As a native of Kentucky, who learned to love racing at the knee of his father, a Moorehead State University professor, he tends to give Triple Crown performances a lot of weight.

"For that reason, Point Given would obviously impress me with his season," Chaplin said. "But Tiznow presents a unique situation, with his non-traditional schedule at the beginning and end of the year. And he was so outstanding in the biggest race of the year, on a day that the best were supposed to be at their best."

Rudi Groothedde, another rookie voter, does not need to disclose conflicts of interest. As managing editor of the Thoroughbred of California, they are written on his business card. And yes, he will be voting for Tiznow, a Cal-bred, but not because his job depends on it.

"I hate being put in that position, and I always hope I can be as fair as possible," said the native of South Africa. "I think any horse with sentimental value has a 20-30 percent advantage going in, and I feel very lucky to have been alive when Tiznow was running.

"I think Point Given will probably win," Groothedde noted. "His record really jumps out. But I give a lot of weight to horses who race outside their division. If Xtra Heat would have won the Breeders' Cup Sprint, I was prepared to vote for her as Horse of the Year. As it is, she was my choice as 3-year-old filly champion."

There you have it. If a rookie voter from Kentucky can lean toward a homegrown Californian, and a rookie voter from California can consider a Kentucky-bred, Maryland-based filly as his Horse of the Year, this version of the Eclipse ordeal is every bit as confusing as it seems. One thing is for certain--every vote will count, and Steve Chaplin is taking no chances.

"I may hand deliver my ballot," he said.