11/22/2002 12:00AM

The champ? Depends who you ask

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NEW YORK - It is one of the vagaries of the disparate systems used to determine championships that Breeders' Cup Classic winner Volponi stands a better chance of being crowned the best dirt horse in the world via the European system than he does in the United States.

At the same time, the way that the European-based International Classification arrives at its conclusions could deprive Rock of Gibraltar of anything better than the title of best 3-year-old miler.

Thus, we could have a situation where Volponi is declared the world champion on dirt by an International Classification Committee made up largely of Europeans, while the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year goes to Azeri and the best older horse award goes to Evening Attire or Left Bank.

In politics there are as many different kinds of democracies as there are nations with democratic systems. The manner in which the prime minister is elected in the United Kingdom is quite different from the way we elect the president of the United States, and the way the French elect their president is different from both the American and British systems.

So, too, in horse racing. No two systems for arriving at the names of the champions who will grace the pages of future record books are alike. The members of the International Classification Committee assign a weight for the best performance of the year for most of the horses who competed in group races. The highest weight given to a horse is that horse's Classification rating. The horse with the highest rating becomes the champion of his given age group or distance category.

Under such a system it is possible for a modestly good horse who threw in a single fantastic performance to be awarded championship honors.

That happened in 1994 when Maroof was named best older horse and best older miler in Europe on the strength of his 66-1 upset of Barathea, Bigstone, Ski Paradise, and Distant View in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. The International Classification Committee awarded him a 128 for that effort, a decision which made him, in their eyes, the best older horse in Europe.

The decision came in spite of the fact that the QEII was Maroof's only victory in seven starts that year.

Volponi was more accomplished than Maroof going into his 6 1/2-length triumph in the Breeders' Cup Classic at over 43-1, but nobody was thinking of him as championship material prior to his Arlington Park effort. But, the manner in which he won the Classic is sure to catch the eye of the International Classification as it was easily the best performance on dirt in the United States.

Only Street Cry, who will be awarded a high rating for his 4 1/4-length Dubai World Cup victory, Left Bank, and Orientate will receive dirt ratings in the neighborhood of Volponi's Classic. If the Committee sees it Volponi's way, they will raise eyebrows around the world.

The way the Eclipse Award voting is conducted, with three different groups, Daily Racing Form, the National Turf Writers Association, and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association combining in a kind of electoral college system, more weight is given to each horse's overall record, and that could mitigate against Volponi's chances for an Eclipse Award.

Stranger still is the situation concerning Rock of Gibraltar.

Is there any doubt that the five-time Group 1 mile winner is the most accomplished horse in the world? Yet at this stage of the proceedings, the chief handicapper of the British Jockey Club has Keltos as the highest rated miler in the world for his victory in the Group 1 Lockinge Stakes at Newbury on May 18.

The reason is that Keltos was overpowering in defeating Noverre by 3 1/2 lengths that day. Rock of Gibraltar, on the other hand, only did what was necessary to win. His five Group 1 wins came by a combined victory margin of just six lengths.

If the International Classification Committee sees things the same way, The "Rock" will very likely receive only the highweight classification as best 3-year-old miler. There is also a good chance that he will be squeezed out of overall 3-year-old honors by his stablemate High Chaparral.

Timeform offers a clue as to what we can expect from the Inernational Classification when its findings are announced on Jan. 20. While Timeform's criteria and personnel are different from those on the Classification Committee, the ratings Timeform published in its Final Flat Issue on Nov. 11 provide clues into European thinking on these matters.

Timeform Ratings for 4-year-olds and up: Azeri 133, Keltos 132, Street Cry 132, Volponi 131, Left Bank 129; Golan, Grandera, Marienbard, Nayef, and Slickly, all at 129; Domedriver, Orientate, and Sakhee, all at 128.

Timeform Ratings for 3-year-olds: Rock of Gibraltar 133, High Chaparral 130, Sulamani 130, War Emblem 129, Hawk Wing 127.

This weekend's Japan Cup races and the Hong Kong International Races on Dec. 15 will make a further impact. After that, it will be up to the judges.