12/08/2006 1:00AM

Eclipse-worthy year for team Barbaro

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WASHINGTON - When voters cast their ballots for the 2006 Eclipse Awards, they will confront one decision that might come down to a choice between sentiment and logic. Who should be the champion 3-year-old - Barbaro or Bernardini?

Barbaro, of course, was a national hero. He won the Kentucky Derby by the largest margin in 50 years before his career came to an abrupt and horrifying end in the Preakness. After he shattered his leg, his subsequent surgery and fight for survival became the biggest story of the year in horse racing. He was an object of universal sympathy. Americans who have never heard of Bernardini or Invasor (the certain Horse of the Year for 2006) know who Barbaro is.

Bernardini's 5 1/4-length victory in the Preakness received little acclaim because of the favorite's mishap. But he proceeded to win the Jim Dandy Stakes by nine lengths, the Travers by 7 1/2, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup by six - all with consummate ease. Earning acclaim as a superstar, he was heavily favored to win the Breeders' Cup Classic and the Horse of the Year title. However, his disappointing second-place finish behind Invasor in the Classic prompted a re-examination of his achievements.

Yes, Bernardini looked overpowering when he scored his victories, but it's easy for a horse to look impressive when he faces negligible opposition. Bernardini never had a formidable challenge before the Breeders' Cup. His victory in the Gold Cup came when he was a 1-5 favorite against three rivals. His loss to Invasor put his talent in perspective. He was no superstar.

Yet even though Bernardini may have been overrated, I will vote for him as the 3-year-old champion. Barbaro didn't do enough to take the title from him. Barbaro's three wins before the Kentucky Derby were mere tune-ups; he was hard-pressed to defeat an ordinary field in the Florida Derby. His claim to an Eclipse Award rests on a single performance, and that is not enough to trump Bernardini, who captured three important Grade 1 stakes and finished ahead of 11 high-class rivals while running second in the Breeders' Cup.

But there is a way for Eclipse voters to pay tribute to Barbaro indirectly - by conferring honors on his owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, and his trainer, Michael Matz.

The Jacksons deserve a pair of Eclipses, in fact - as the outstanding owner and the outstanding breeder. Although they rank behind the two Dubai sheikhs who are the top money-winning owners in the U.S., the Jacksons' relatively small operation, Lael Stables, campaigned two of the nation's best horses: Barbaro and Showing Up, the top 3-year-old turf runner. And they bred George Washington, the star miler in Europe.

No one would dispute that Matz did a masterful job of preparing Barbaro for the Kentucky Derby, defying precedent by bringing the colt into the race after a five-week layoff. Matz had an outstanding year overall, climaxing the season by winning the Breeders' Cup Distaff with Round Pond.

Still, can Matz deserve a title in a year when Todd Pletcher won a record number of graded stakes races and more than $27 million in purses?

Many voters look at the leading money-winners in various categories and mark their Eclipse ballots accordingly. Those who do so may as well give the Eclipse Award as leading trainer to Pletcher in perpetuity. His stable is so large and powerful that on Jan. 1, 2006, he was a virtual cinch to win more money during the year than any other trainer. He will do it again in 2007. Pletcher does a remarkable job managing his far-flung operation, but this year he failed conspicuously in the races that usually decide championships.

After nominating a record 38 horses to the Triple Crown series, he was again blanked in the 3-year-old classics. In the Breeders' Cup events he went 0 for 17. Matz was 1 for 1. I want to honor Matz and the Jacksons because their contributions to the game were more meaningful than any numbers suggest. When Barbaro broke his leg at Pimlico, with a nationwide television audience watching, I expected a backlash against the sport. The public at large might have shared the view of many animal-rights activists, that Thoroughbred racing is a heartless and inhumane sport.

But this backlash never materialized, largely because of Matz, the Jacksons, and the veterinary team that cared for Barbaro. Their concern for the horse's well-being was so heartfelt and genuine that their efforts to save the animal came to symbolize the best of Thoroughbred racing. Frank Deford, the esteemed Sports Illustrated writer, nominated the owners and trainer for the magazine's Sportsman of the Year award, writing, "They embroidered their sport with goodness and nobility." In voting for the Eclipse awards, statistics are important, of course, but nobility ought to count for something, too.

(c) 2006 The Washington Post