11/17/2008 1:00AM

Eclipses not all done deals


NEW YORK - Just about everyone with any sort of connection to this game, including those who aren't fortunate enough to have a vote, has at least some interest every year in the outcome of the balloting for our Eclipse Award champions. And it's refreshing that this year, there is actually something to talk about here. Unlike most years, when there is hardly any suspense after the Breeders' Cup as to who most, if not all, of our newest champions will be, there is room for some legitimate debate this year.

Of course, there are still some divisions where the champions are obvious. Curlin in the older male division, Zenyatta in the older female division, and Stardom Bound in the 2-year-old filly division are examples of that.

And even in a couple of divisions where there is some uncertainty, there isn't, strangely enough, much debate. For example, it's pretty much a given that if Midshipman doesn't win the 2-year-old male title, and he is likely to on the basis of his Breeders' Cup Juvenile win, then two-time Grade 1 winner Vineyard Haven will. The same is true in the 3-year-old filly division. If Proud Spell doesn't get the Eclipse Award, then Music Note will. The voting in that one might be close, and it might well hinge on the fact that in their only meeting in which both had clean trips, which was in the Alabama, Proud Spell narrowly prevailed. The champion, however, can only be one of these two, thus limiting the suspense.

But there is room for anything ranging from discussion to outright strong difference of opinion in the other divisional categories, and that includes 3-year-old male. In a recent column, Daily Racing Form's Fearless Leader, Steven Crist, wrote that Big Brown should be a unanimous selection for this division's championship. I agree that Big Brown, winner of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Haskell, and Florida Derby, should be the champion. I agree that he will probably win in a landslide. But I do think there is some room to talk about Raven's Pass.

Didn't Raven's Pass, a 3-year-old male, win the Breeders' Cup Classic, the richest, and in the opinion of many, the most important race in North America? Yes he did, decisively, in a performance that was quite likely superior to any race Big Brown ever ran. I'm not saying Raven's Pass deserves to be champion over Big Brown. But he doesn't deserve to be ignored, either.

Conversely, there has been some hand-wringing over the male turf division. And much of that anguish seems centered around perceived flaws in the resume of the Breeders' Cup Turf winner Conduit. The trouble with Conduit, it appears, is that he ran only once in this country, and he wasn't exactly of championship caliber in Europe before coming here. To me, this is like looking for problems when there just aren't any. Who cares what Conduit did in Europe before competing in the Breeders' Cup? Why should what he did or didn't accomplish over there have any impact on our U.S. championships? And in regard to having just one start here, Conduit would just be the next in a long line of European horses who needed just one start here to clinch an Eclipse Award.

All that really matters is what Conduit did in the Breeders' Cup Turf. And what he did was deliver perhaps the most powerful Breeders' Cup performance in any Breeders' Cup race this year, not to mention the best race run on turf by a horse in North America in 2008 by a long, long way.

Speaking of turf, the female grass division shouldn't just boil down to Forever Together's three Grade 1 victories automatically trumping the one Grade 1 win Goldikova achieved in her only U.S. start. There is more to consider here than just that. Forever Together would be a completely worthy winner - you don't often see horses put on the kind of sustained late kick she did when she won the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, and her Grade 1 wins having come in races at distances of one mile, nine furlongs, and 10 furlongs speaks to her high quality. Goldikova, though, beat males in the Breeders' Cup Mile. That has got to be worth bonus points all on its own. But on top of that, the sudden acceleration she showed to win the Mile might have been the most electrifying move seen in a major U.S. race this year.

The male and female sprint divisions also merit debate and deliberation. Among the males, there appears to be discomfort to awarding the title to the Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Midnight Lute, because he was badly beaten in his only other start this year, and champion American sprinters (unlike international turfers) are supposed to win more than just one race here on the campaign. But the only other viable alternative is Benny the Bull, who did win all four of his starts this year, but who had to be retired over the summer because of injury, and who was decreasingly impressive as his campaign wore on. At least Midnight Lute was impressive winning the Sprint, a race that seems to have an even greater weight in this division when it comes to championships (Speightstown, for a recent example) than Breeders' Cup races in other divisions. And though it shouldn't be a factor, the fact that Midnight Lute was champion sprinter in 2007 and not just some one-race phenomenon makes it much more palatable voting for him.

As for the female sprinters, even though Indian Blessing was walloped - I mean seriously crushed - by Ventura in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, Indian Blessing's candidacy for a divisional title seems to have just as much if not more life than Ventura's because Indian Blessing was so accomplished on dirt, while Ventura was a specialist on synthetic tracks and turf. Those who have a philosophical problem with Ventura's big Breeders' Cup win because it came over a synthetic track need to get over that quickly, because Stardom Bound, and very likely Midshipman, are going to become our first all synthetic-track-raced Eclipse Award winners. To acknowledge the championship qualifications of those 2-year-olds, and not those of Ventura's, would be terribly inconsistent. But beyond that, it's hard to defend supporting Indian Blessing and at the same time overlooking Ventura when Ventura absolutely thrashed Indian Blessing when everything was on the line.