11/20/2002 1:00AM

Cast vote for Fogelsonger, for now


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Despite closely following politics, I always find myself facing a dilemma or two when voting time approaches. Sometimes candidates appear evenly matched, and other times there is not enough information for voters to make an informed decision.

I feel the same about the upcoming Eclipse Award voting race. Several races are toss-ups, while others either don't have a deserving winner or have several candidates that merit recognition for their accomplishments.

The Eclipse Award race for apprentice jockey appears likely to come down to three finalists: Ryan Fogelsonger, Francisco Duran, and John McKee.

I have watched the Kentucky-based McKee on a daily basis. I have seen the others less, on either simulcast signals or TVG.

Therein lies the problem - unlike most Eclipse categories, there are no head-to-head matchups to determine superiority. There are no Breeders' Cup races to settle a draw.

Some voters support individuals that come from their circuit - riders they have seen, trainers they know. Or, voters rely on statistics that should logically point one in the right direction.

Looking at the statistics, Fogelsonger must be considered the favorite to win the Eclipse Award. Through Nov. 18, he had ridden 220 winners, compared with 173 for Duran and 162 for McKee.

Additionally, he has won at a higher percentage than his counterparts, winning with 22 percent of his mounts. Duran and McKee have won at 16- and 20-percent rates, respectively.

To be fair, the numbers don't tell the whole story. McKee, for example, didn't even ride in his first race until March 15 at Turfway Park and didn't win until his 18th mount on May 27 at River Downs. His numbers are based on eight months of riding.

Fogelsonger and Duran, on the other hand, haven't received the media attention of McKee. McKee has been a media darling, as Kris Prather was last year.

Beyond the win percentages, who are Fogelsonger and Duran?

Fogelsonger won his first riding title during the 20-day fall meet at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore with 49 wins, 27 more than the closest rider in the standings. He is currently the leading rider at Laurel Park.

He also had a pair of five-win days during Pimlico's fall meet and became the fifth apprentice rider in the last 30 years to win a riding title at Pimlico. The others were Chris McCarron in 1974, Ronnie Franklin in 1978, Donnie Miller in 1981, and Kent Desormeaux in 1987. All except Miller were honored with Eclipse Awards.

Duran, meanwhile, has experienced success in northern California. He won four races one day during the Golden Gate Fields meeting, and won four races in a day twice during the fair circuit at Vallejo and Santa Rosa.

Additionally, he was the leading rider on the northern California fair circuit, winning jockey titles at Stockton, Vallejo, and the Bay Meadows Fair, where he edged Russell Baze by one victory.

McKee didn't beat a rider of Baze's quality when he won the River Downs riding title this summer, but he did leave his mark in history. McKee surpassed Steve Cauthen's 1976 record for most wins by an apprentice at River Downs, winning 114 races compared to Cauthen's 109.

His accomplishments haven't been restricted to Ohio. McKee later won the fall riding title at Turfway Park, and currently ranks second in wins behind Pat Day at Churchill Downs.

My inclination at this point is to favor Fogelsonger. He has won the most races, and has even been successful in graded stakes.

The decision doesn't need to be made today. Voters have until Dec. 31 to submit their Eclipse Award ballots.

If McKee can make a splash in New York - where he will begin riding upon the conclusion of the Churchill Downs meeting - he may win enough votes, including mine, to make the voting for outstanding apprentice jockey closer than the George Bush/Al Gore presidential election.