12/19/2003 12:00AM

The clock is ticking for voters


NEW YORK - Tis the season for vexing choices, and not just whether to get Grandma the Miracle Moustache Remover or another Chia Pet. The remaining shopping days until Christmas look like an eternity compared to the eight days left for voters to make what may well be the toughest collection of Eclipse Award choices ever.

Only five of the 16 categories appear to be airtight cases: Halfbridled for champion 2-year-old filly, McDynamo for steeplechaser, Jerry Bailey for jockey, and Mineshaft as older horse and Horse of the Year. After inking those in, voters have uncomfortable choices galore.

Two-year-old male: In a year when no one won more than a single Grade 1 race, Action This Day will probably win because his Grade 1 was the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, albeit in slow time against a depleted field that collapsed in front of him. So there will be scattered support for the one-race candidacies of Birdstone, Eurosilver, and Ruler's Court, and for multiple graded winners Cuvee and Read the Footnotes.

Three-year-old male: Funny Cide is a likely winner but for his popularity rather than his racing record, since Empire Maker had more victories, more Grade 1 victories, fewer losses, and a 2-1 edge in head-to-head meetings. It will be interesting to see if those who have rationalized voting for Funny Cide because he sold tickets and merchandise will also vote for Seabiscuit as Horse of the Year.

Three-year-old filly: The division deteriorated in the second half of the year and was no match for its elders in the fall. Bird Town's Kentucky Oaks and Acorn may be enough, but reasonable cases can be made that no one was ever better than Composure early in the year, or that Six Perfections's single American victory against older males in the Breeders' Cup Mile was the division's best and most meaningful performance.

Older filly or mare: Like the 3-year-old male showdown, this is another two-horse race between a beloved public icon (Azeri) and a Bobby Frankel trainee who accomplished more (Sightseek). Sentiment will likely triumph again.

Sprinter: Good luck predicting a winner among Aldebaran, Cajun Beat, and Congaree. Aldebaran has the best overall credentials but lost the Carter to Congaree and the Breeders' Cup Sprint to Cajun Beat; Cajun Beat won the Sprint and a lot of voters simply fill in the name of whoever wins that race; and Congaree didn't participate in most of the year's important sprints.

Turf Male: Storming Home did the most here during the year, but defending champion High Chapparal did come back to defend his title, dead-heating in the Turf. Falbrav had the best truly international campaign of them all. Another skullbuster.

Turf Female: Islington won the division's definitive race on Breeders' Cup Day and probably will get the nod over Six Perfections for having beaten tougher fields both here and abroad. Maybe this one's not so hard.

Apprentice jockey: In a questionable awards category, where few voters have even seen all the leading contenders, it's the usual choice between numbers and prestige. Eddie Castro won the most races, Pablo Fragoso succeeded on the tougher and richer New York circuit, and Ryan Fogelsonger and John McKee also did well in strong markets.

Breeder: This should be an easy one for Juddmonte Farms, which bred the winners of 13 graded stakes and $6.6 million from just 57 starters, but Juddmonte ranks only fifth on the overall earnings list. Some voters will stop at the top with Frank Stronach/Adena Farm's $11.8 million, at least those National Thoroughbred Racing Association voters employed as racing secretaries at Stronach-owned tracks.

Trainer: This was supposed to be a lock for Frankel and his 25 Grade 1's, but some of the same people voting against his stars - Aldebaran, Empire Maker, and Sightseek - are instead promoting Richard Mandella for winning 3 1/2 Breeders' Cup races. Both were spectacular achievements, but a year is supposed to trump an afternoon.

Owner: Talk about apples and oranges: Does your taste run to Juddmonte's 11 Grade 1's as an owner or to Michael Gill's 401 victories through Dec. 1? There's even a case to be made for Edmund Gann, who won 13 graded stakes from just 74 total starts. It may boil down to this: Do you prefer your owners to breed (Juddmonte), claim (Gill), or privately purchase (Gann) their winners?

Ballots are due at 5 p.m. Eastern, the Monday after Christmas. I expect to have it all figured out no later than 4:57.