10/18/2004 12:00AM

Eclipse debate more global than ever

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NEW YORK - Many believe that when Pico Central made the Vosburgh Stakes his third Grade 1 victory of the year, he made easy the decision his connections faced over whether he should be supplemented to the Breeders' Cup Sprint at a cost of $200,000. Pico Central's Vosburgh win meant there was no longer any need to supplement him, a position his people apparently agreed with, because that's what they decided. By winning the Vosburgh, Pico Central effectively clinched the Eclipse Award for champion sprinter. No other legitimate threat to the title has more than one Grade 1 win this year, and even if one of them were to win the Breeders' Cup Sprint, the victory would be hollow from a championship context without Pico Central there.

John Sadler, the trainer of Dubai Golden Shaheen winner and Sprint-bound Our New Recruit, apparently disagrees. Soon after the Vosburgh, Sadler said, "If Our New Recruit wins the Breeders' Cup, he will have won the two best sprint races in the world."

Whether the Dubai Golden Shaheen is one of the two best sprint races in the world is open to serious debate. It is often populated with horses who are on unfamiliar footing on dirt, not to mention horses of dubious quality, and in most years, several of our sprint races, like the Ancient Title and the Forego, just to name two, are much tougher to win. But that aside, Sadler's point raises an interesting question: How much of an impact should the outcome of foreign stakes races have on deciding United States champions?

This first became an issue to deal with in 1993. That was the wide-open year in which Bertrando would have become Horse of the Year with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic. But the matter was thrown into chaos when in the Classic, Bertrando couldn't hold off the 133-1 Arcangues. Despite being a grass specialist, Kotashaan was a contender for Horse of the Year after his decision in the Breeders' Cup Turf. What put Kotashaan over the top, however, and enabled him to become the first turf specialist to be a North American Horse of the Year in 10 years, and only one since, was a race in another country, the Japan Cup. After stumbling early and dropping far back, and then having his rider severely misjudge the finish line, Kotashaan came on to be second in the Japan Cup, beaten a little more than a length. He was obviously much the best, and that was enough for Eclipse Award voters to award him top honors in an inscrutable year.

When it comes to Eclipse Award voting, there are no rules or restrictions beyond the obvious, like voting for a 2-year-old to be champion 3-year-old. It is expected that the voters - members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the National Turf Writers Association, and Daily Racing Form - will exercise responsibility in the process. But the criteria can be as individual as the voter him or herself. It is left to the voter to decide how much weight, if any, to give to foreign performances by U.S.-based horses.

At least Kotashaan, and if he should win the Sprint, Our New Recruit, had successes in this country, too. Someday, it could go the other way. Imagine the following scenario: Kitten's Joy returns next year, finishes third in his first start of the year in a prep for, say, the Arlington Million, and then finishes an unlucky third in the Million itself. He is then pointed to the Arc de Triomphe, which he wins in a sensational performance over a stellar field. Kitten's Joy passes the Breeders' Cup to go after the Japan Cup, instead. One of the horses Kitten's Joy whips in the Arc comes back to win the Breeders' Cup Turf decisively, while Kitten's Joy calls it a season with a victory in the Japan Cup. What do you do with Kitten's Joy when it comes to Eclipse Award voting? He is U.S.-based, and in the Arc and Japan Cup, he won what are unquestionably two of the world's greatest races, but was 0 for 2 in this country. Can you vote a championship to a horse who did not even win here? Can you ignore him?

The frequency of international competition seems to increase every year. This year, the Dubai World Cup attracted what at the time were the two best dirt horses in this country, Pleasantly Perfect and Medaglia d'Oro. The U.S.-based Hard Buck finished second in the Dubai Sheema Classic and the King George Stakes at Ascot. Maybe the time has come to create some Eclipse Award guidelines on how to deal with this matter. Should it be affirmed that the Eclipse Awards are U.S. championships, and as such, only performances in this country should be considered in the voting process? Should the parameters be expanded? Should perhaps a list of international races be created that, for Eclipse Award voting purposes, would be treated as if they were run on these shores? Or, should things be left as is in the hopes that in a changing environment, no egregious Eclipse Award decisions/mistakes will be made?