02/06/2009 12:00AM

Champion selection a flawed process


NEW YORK - Europe and America each have their ways of selecting champion racehorses. America uses a quasi-democratic vote of nearly 250 racing journalists and racing officials. Reflecting its less egalitarian past, Europe employs a rather elitist method, determining the best of the annual breed in both Europe and the rest of the world through a handicapping system derived by national handicappers and racing secretaries from each of the world's major racing nations.

The American system results in the Eclipse Awards, the European in the World Thoroughbred Ratings (WTR), and there is evidence this year that our more democratic approach needs a rethink.

The criticism over the vote that gave Stronach Stables the Eclipse for leading owner is well deserved. The vote by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association members was just clubby enough to tilt the ballot in favor of Stronach over IEAH Stables, a case of quantity defeating quality. The WTR doesn't determine human awards, but there are many discrepancies between their determinations and those of the Eclipse voters that are worth noting.

The most glaring Eclipse errors came in the awarding of Horse of the Year honors to Curlin, who failed to beat a single genuine Group or Grade 1 horse all year, a mistake aggravated in light of his getting slammed by two such horses that beat him into fourth place in the Breeders' Cup Classic - Raven's Pass and Henrythenavigator. If the Eclipse Award is supposed to go to the best horse that ran in America during the year, how can Raven's Pass be denied that honor other than by a provincial, anti-European bias? Curlin fans will say that he wasn't running up to form on a synthetic surface, but Raven's Pass was running on that surface for the first time as well and had to make a 7,000-mile journey to get there. It was a fair-and-square race in which Raven's Pass established his clear superiority.

The failure of Eclipse voters to grant Goldikova best 3-year-old filly honors also can be laid to favoritism for the home side. Her performance in the Breeders' Cup Mile was far and away the best by any 3-year-old filly in America. In winning that race by 1 1/4 lengths, she was beating older colts, among them the world-class defending champ Kip Deville. Three-year-old filly champ Proud Spell and runner-up Eight Belles never beat anything but members of their own sex and age group.

Goldikova also deserved the best turf filly and mare award over the very capable Forever Together. Imagine the two of them meeting at a mile on any turf course in the world. Who do you think would win?

The WTR ratings are hardly foolproof. Zarkava, undefeated and the winner of four Group 1 races between eight and 12 furlongs, was denied the overall championship in favor of co-champs New Approach and Curlin, a victim, perhaps, of the in-bred anti-French bias that has always existed in the WTR system. By the same token, the WTR seems to go out of its way to curry favor with Americans. Curlin was named co-highweight in the world and best older horse on his Dubai World Cup victory alone, with the World Thoroughbred Ratings derived solely through a horse's best overall performance. But even though Curlin won in Dubai by a record 7 3/4 lengths, what was he beating? An Asiatic Boy who has never won anything better than a Nad Al Sheba Group 2 and an Argentine juvenile Group 1, and a Well Armed whose best win came in the Goodwood Handicap. The rest of the field was sub-Grade 2 caliber.

Zarkava, on the other hand, overwhelmed her rivals in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, displaying the scintillating acceleration that helped her to beat none other than Goldikova in both the French 1000 Guineas and the French Oaks. She was the best horse in the world in 2008, rising to the occasion when it mattered most, something Curlin failed to do.

Focus falls on wrong full brother

The American racing media focused on the wrong full brother last weekend in Nicanor and, in fact, focused on the wrong Nicanor. The full brother to Barbaro was always a longshot to possess anywhere near the talent of the Kentucky Derby winner, but is odds-on to have inherited at least some of his infirmities. Nicanor's appalling first-out effort at Gulfstream Park last Saturday suggests he may soon be standing at stud in Belarus.

On the other hand, there is Lease of Life, who landed a one-mile turf allowance at Santa Anita in his American debut, one day after Nicanor's Gulfstream bellywhopper. A full brother to Mizzen Mast, one of the most versatile horses of the decade, Lease of Life is by Cozzene out of the Graustark mare Kinema. The winner of the 1 1/8-mile and 55-yard, Group 3 Prix de Guiche on the Longchamp turf, Mizzen Mast came to America to take the listed one-mile Bien Bien on turf, then switched to dirt for victories in the seven-furlong, Grade 1 Malibu Stakes and the 1 1/8-mile, Grade 2 Strub Stakes for the same Juddmonte Farm/Bobby Frankel team that has Lease of Life. The seven-length winner of a Windsor maiden in his second start in England, Lease of Life looks up to winning a Grade 3 event somewhere along the line.

Nicanor also is the name of a prominent European jumper. The

8-year-old French-bred gelding, trained in Ireland by Noel Meade, is the only horse ever to beat last year's Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Denman. He did it at the 2006 Cheltenham Festival in the Royal & SunAlliance Novice Hurdle, after which he won a similar Grade 1 hurdle at Punchestown. He has been sidelined since then with a leg injury and was to have made his chasing debut off an improbable 34-month absence at Leopardstown on Sunday in the Grade 1 Dr. P.J. Moriarity Novice Chase, but the snow that has been plaguing racing in Ireland and England this winter forced the cancellation of the card.