01/14/2002 12:00AM

Eclipses fail with false drama

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NEW YORK - Along with Point Given, who was a unanimous choice as champion 3-year-old, three finalists in each equine division up for 2001 Eclipse Awards were announced last Thursday. The winners will be announced at the Eclipse Awards dinner on Feb. 18.

In the meantime, may I please bet a hundred gazillion dollars that Tiznow will be named champion older horse and Johannesburg will be the champion 2-year-old male?

I know that they are each only one of three finalists in their divisions (Lido Palace and Sakhee join Tiznow as the finalists for champion older male, while Officer and Siphonic join Johannesburg as the three finalists for champion 2-year-old male), so maybe I'm going out on a limb here. Although I work for one of the three Eclipse Award voting blocs, I don't know the results. Honest! I've just got a real strong feeling about Tiznow and Johannesburg. So strong, that I may even be willing to lay some odds!

Will someone take my bet? Please!

In all seriousness, I don't know who the Eclipse organizers are fooling by going through the charade of announcing other "finalists" in Tiznow and Johannesburg's divisions. Not when the two other finalists for Horse of the Year aside from Point Given are none other than Tiznow and Johannesburg.

Can't you picture everyone on the edge of their seats the night of the dinner when it comes time to open the envelope containing the name of the Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male. Can Officer pull it out? If you think so, there's a bridge in Brooklyn I would like to sell you.

Honestly, does anyone with half a brain think Tiznow and Johannesburg could have emerged as finalists for Horse of the Year if they didn't first carry their own divisions? Of course they couldn't have.

If the goal here isn't merely trying to sell a table at the dinner to the connections of Lido Palace, something in this process clearly needs adjustment. If they continue to announce three Eclipse Award finalists in each division and three finalists for Horse of the Year five weeks before the winners are announced, they will continue to tip off three Eclipse Award winners five weeks before the official sign is posted.

In truth, the most suspenseful thing about the Eclipse Awards at this point is the contest for Horse of the Year. So, announcing three Horse of the Year finalists and maintaining some semblance of uncertainty until the dinner is probably the best thing to do. But instead of announcing division finalists last Thursday, the division winners should have been revealed.

By the time of the Eclipse dinner, the World Thoroughbred Championships, which play such a huge role in determining champions, will have been almost four months old. To all but his immediate connections, the news of Johannesburg being named champion 2-year-old will be as stale as last week's bread.

Which no doubt will be available during the salad course.

Red Bullet disappoints again

There still isn't anything stale about Sir Bear. On what is probably his favorite surface, Sir Bear showed there is plenty of life left in his 9-year-old bones with a determined victory in Saturday's Skip Away Handicap at Gulfstream Park that was very reminiscent of his victory in the Gulfstream Park Handicap last winter.

Yet, the main story of the Skip Away for me was the continued disappointment of Red Bullet. Red Bullet didn't have a straw in his path, yet he was helpless when it really counted to resist Sir Bear, who was coming off an even longer layoff, and was nearly caught for second by Hal's Hope, the former speedball who has suddenly morphed into a closer.

It is true that Red Bullet's career has been compromised by illness and injury. But he hasn't done anything to validate his upset victory over Fusaichi Pegasus in the 2000 Preakness Stakes. Red Bullet's only victory since was an uninspiring one in an allowance last summer at Saratoga, and when he faced real big boys like Lido Palace, Albert the Great, and Tiznow in last September's Woodward, he was beaten the length of the stretch.

Now, after he lost a race Saturday that he should have won, and seemingly had won in deep stretch, it is fair to wonder if Red Bullet will ever really be the major player he promised to be that rainy day at Pimlico two years ago.

Western Pride may be a horse to watch

Only time will tell if Western Pride evolves into a star in this year's handicap division, but there was certainly nothing to take issue with in his victory in Saturday's San Fernando at Santa Anita. Even if the main track at Santa Anita was kind to speed, it is still a feather in Western Pride's cap to be in front at the finish of a 1 1/16-mile race like the San Fernando after posting a half-mile fraction of 44.86 seconds.

Then again, it takes a good horse to win three derbies in one season, which Western Pride did last year (taking the West Virginia, Ohio, and Calder derbies), even if he did so in relative anonymity.