02/03/2005 12:00AM

Experimental numbers don't add up


NEW YORK - Frank Stronach's intentions may well be good when he calls on racing to determine its Eclipse Awards via point systems rather than polling, and the same goes for the people trying to impose a system of World Thoroughbred Rankings onto the sport. In racing as in life, however, trying to cram subjective matters into tidy objective compartments rarely works out very well.

Stronach, who personally has nothing to complain about given the mantel full of Eclipses he has deservedly assembled in recent years, said at the Eclipse dinner that he doesn't like things left to the whims of voters. This was sort of funny coming from someone whose Magna Entertainment often seems driven largely by its chairman's solitary whims, like Horse Wizard machines and the Sunshine Millions, but one man's vision is another man's madness. It's a subjective thing.

The idea of a point system to determine champions is trotted out almost annually, and it just doesn't work. It's hard to imagine a system that would have correctly crowned Stronach's Ghostzapper as the voters did, unless we really want to make the same mistake the NBC broadcasters do and call every horse who won nothing but the Breeders' Cup a champion. Do you truly want to start giving Eclipse Awards to Arcangues over Bertrando or Alphabet Soup over Cigar?

The human awards would be even harder to quantify. Sometimes you're left with apples vs. oranges vs. kumquats choices, like this year's Todd Pletcher vs. Steve Asmussen vs. Bobby Frankel conundrum for leading trainer, or Stronach vs. Ken Ramsey vs. Michael Gill for the owner award. The result will rarely seem entirely fair in these best-in-show situations, but they are better resolved by informed subjective opinions than by some harebrained scheme to compare earnings, victories, and success at the top.

Stronach's Eclipse musings have done no harm, unlike the subset of the North American Ratings Committee that published an illogical and self-serving Experimental Free Handicap last month. The once-revered Experimental this year abandoned common sense in favor of a shotgun marriage to the NARC ratings.

Mike Lakow in New York, Frank Gabriel in Chicago, and Tom Robbins in California decreed that Declan's Moon and Wilko would share topweight of 126 pounds on the Experimental. The three of them are among the five racing secretaries who make up the ratings committee. It is no coincidence that Declan's Moon's Hollywood Futurity and Wilko's Breeders' Cup Juvenile received identical 126 ratings on the NARC system, which assigns a weight-like rating to individual performances rather than to a horse's overall ability or accomplishments.

"The NARC ratings have become the official ratings of the industry," Lakow told the Racing Form's Mike Watchmaker after the Experimental was published. "We stand by them."

There's a reason that Declan's Moon outpolled Wilko 188 to 22 in the voting for champion 2-year-old. It was only the third time in 20 years that a horse who passed the Breeders' Cup Juvenile won the Eclipse, and it was as clear-cut a decision as anything but a committee tied up in its own knots could make.

Declan's Moon thoroughly deserved the Eclipse and sole topweight ranking in the Experimental after beating Wilko fair and square the only time they met, in a Hollywood Futurity that was simply a more important race than the Juvenile. Not to mention that the benefit of any doubt, however misplaced, would seem to go to a horse who went 4 for 4 last year while Wilko was 3 for 11.

Only a committee of otherwise very smart people feeling some obligation to say that every Breeders' Cup race is a definitive classic could see no difference between these two. The NARC ratings consistently fall into this trap, treating the result of every world-famous race as a decisive verdict no matter the circumstances surrounding its outcome. There's no such thing as a substandard classic or a meaningless Grade 1. Things only get worse when their work is blended with the screwball and elitist opinions of their European counterparts to form the useless and misleading World Thoroughbred Rankings that are published throughout the year.

The Experimental used to mean something and certify the results of the previous year's 2-year-old campaigns. This year's co-topweight verdict instead reflected politics, promotion, and what happens when you paint yourself into a corner by trying to make one set of numbers a holy writ. It's usually the Eclipse voters who put a little too much emphasis on the Breeders' Cup results, but this time it was people who are supposed to know better.