Updated on 09/16/2011 7:39AM

Fans offer clues to Eclipses


NEW YORK - Now that we know the three finalists for each of Thoroughbred racing's 10 championships, it's easier to predict whether there are going to be any actual surprises when the sport's champions are announced next month. According to the closest thing we have to a tracking poll, the results could be a tad different from what everyone has been expecting.

The " " at drf.com has attracted over 2,000 votes in each category, a hefty sample whose performance so far suggests a close correlation to the actual voters. The top three poll choices corresponded exactly to the three finalists in eight of the 10 categories and were 27 for 30 overall, missing only on distant runners-up in categories with heavy favorites.

The fans' choices confirmed that five of the categories are foregone conclusions. Two others may be surprisingly clear-cut, two are far closer than expected, and Horse of the Year is no walkover.

The five no-brainers, with the percentage of the fan vote in parentheses, are Point Given (91 percent) as 3-year-old colt; Tiznow (73 percent) as older male; Johannesburg (63 percent) as 2-year-old colt, Fantastic Light (58 percent) as turf male, and Banks Hill (44 percent) as turf female.

Not surprisingly, the three most dominant divisional winners are the three finalists for Horse of the Year - Point Given, Tiznow, and Johnannesburg. Banks Hill's divisional trophy can be engraved despite only a 44 percent vote because there was a five-way race for second with no one receiving more than 10 percent of the votes.

The division that figured to be a runaway but surprisingly isn't is among the 2-year-old fillies. Tempera looked like a lock off her Breeders' Cup Juvenile victory but holds only a 39-27 percent lead over You. Tempera still would be a good bet at 1-5 to take the trophy, but it's curious that the fans have not embraced her. Perhaps some of her constituency has defected to Habibti, who is running third in the polls at 13 percent.

One division that figured a squeaker, but won't be if the polls can be believed, is the race for older filly, an impossible category this year. Turf writers and racing officials with actual votes were agonizing over this one until ballots were due, but the fans had no trouble picking Spain over Tranquility Lake by a 39-23 percent tally, with Gourmet Girl a distant third with 9 percent. I cringed while voting for Spain, who I thought was the best of the bunch but whose 1-for-9 record could be the worst ever recorded by an Eclipse winner.

The two most surprising poll results are also the two with the greatest chance of error, and they involve the same filly. Xtra Heat is truly a "fan's choice" kind of horse, beloved for her brilliant early speed, her grit, and her persistent challenges of the males. The question is whether the actual voters will be as swayed by emotion.

The bet here is that they will be, at least in the 3-year-old filly division. This was a deep and talented group in which several fillies won two big races but faltered toward the end of the season. The fan votes suggest that this will pave the way for Xtra Heat: She got 55 percent of the vote, with finalists Exogenous and Flute a pole behind at 14 and 13 percent, respectively.

The sprinting division could be the closest call of all and the one genuine upset. Squirtle Squirt was virtually given the award by acclamation when he won the Breeders' Cup Sprint over Xtra Heat, but the fans still favor the filly by a 40-31 tally.

So Xtra Heat, who once looked unlikely to win any Eclipses, could be one of two horses to win two of them Feb. 18. The other will be Point Given or Tiznow.

Even many who voted for Tiznow say they expect Point Given to win, but the polls are far from clear. In a one-week drf.com poll conducted right after the Breeders' Cup, Tiznow was a 53-47 percent winner among 1,429 voters. A more recent poll, started after finalists were announced Thursday, had attracted 426 votes as of Friday and 51 percent of them had been cast for Point Given, with Tiznow getting 43 percent and Johannesburg 6 percent.

The more recent poll may be truer than one conducted in the days following Tiznow's stirring (unless you bet Sakhee) Classic victory. On the other hand, Point Given, for all his talent, beat up on a bad crop of 3-year-olds and never faced his elders.

He's the favorite for the evening's final statue, but not a cinch.