12/21/2006 12:00AM

Few close calls on this Eclipse ballot


Handicapping the Eclipse Awards is easy - except when it's not. Most of this year's choices were pretty straightforward, but filling out my ballot took longer than usual because there were some tough calls.

Steeplechase: Easy. McDynamo won the Breeders' Cup Chase by a country mile, and came back three weeks later to hold off Hirapour in the Colonial Cup, surpassing Lonesome Glory's earnings record and locking up his third title in the last four years.

Juvenile male: Though it may have been aided by a rail-favoring bias, Street Sense came from next-to-last to steamroll 13 rivals in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and was a no-brainer on top. Second went to Nobiz Like Shobiz off an immensely promising fall campaign. Third went to the unbeaten Tiz Wonderful.

Juvenile filly: A slam-dunk for BC Juvenile Fillies winner Dreaming of Anna, who went 4 for 4 on turf and dirt. Second to Point Ashley, victimized by a speed bias at 1-2 in the Oak Leaf. Third to Octave, a tough-trip second in the Juvenile Fillies.

Three-year-old: You could go 10 years and not see a 3-year-old as good as Bernardini, Barbaro, or Discreet Cat, whom I voted for in that order. Bernardini won five graded stakes at four tracks by 32 combined lengths, and did it with authority from eight to 10 furlongs; I admired the way he gutted it out to beat 11 of 12 rivals in the BC Classic. The incredibly versatile Barbaro was certainly the story of the year. Discreet Cat answered some questions winning a fast Cigar Mile, but next year we need to see him against top competition in definitive races.

Three-year-old filly: Inexperience cost the ill-fated Pine Island in the Mother Goose and Coaching Club American Oaks, but triumphs in the Alabama and Gazelle firmly established her supremacy. Second went to three-time Grade 1 winner Bushfire, even though she never ran particularly fast. Third to Wait a While, who was merely good on fast tracks but super on turf and in the slop.

Older male: Invasor took on all comers in the BC Classic and won his fourth Grade 1 from as many U.S. starts. Among those in his wake were Bernardini and Premium Tap, who returned 20 days later to blow up the Clark Handicap with a 115 Beyer. Invasor has yet to capture the imagination of casual fans, but is a worthy champion and a lock for Horse of the Year, at least on my ballot. Second went to Lava Man. I put Premium Tap third with a late rally.

Older filly or mare: Fleet Indian pulled up with an injury in the BC Distaff, but won graded stakes from March through October, and no one else did enough to knock her off. Second went to Round Pond, whose Beyer (100) in the Distaff was the lowest winning figure for the race since the Beyers became part of horses' records in 1990. Third to Balletto, even though she didn't actually win a race.

Sprinter: I loved - loved - how the connections of Thor's Echo ran their horse back in the De Francis Dash three weeks after the BC Sprint. That's the way championships were won back in the day, and I rewarded them for it. Second went to Henny Hughes, who was eliminated at the break of the Sprint, but otherwise dominated. Third to Surf Cat.

Male turf: Cases can be made for or against a large handful. I finally settled on Miesque's Approval, even though he cost me dearly in some high-priced claiming races earlier in his career. He was three days the best in the BC Mile, an extraordinary performance when ground-loss is factored in, and he won five stakes on five different courses from late January through early November, earning more money on U.S. soil ($1.9 million) than any other contender. If you liked The Tin Man (my second choice), English Channel (my third choice), or even Aragorn, Cacique, Lava Man, or Red Rocks, I understand.

Female turf: Because it was his first graded stakes win, I didn't go for Red Rocks off a single U.S. run in the BC Turf. But after she won the BC Filly and Mare Turf for a second time, I was more than happy to reward Ouija Board for her overall body of work as one of the best and most durable mares of the past quarter-century. Second went to Wait a While. Third to Gorella.

Breeder: Will Farish.

Owner: Lael Stable.

Jockey: Garrett Gomez.

Apprentice: Julien Leparoux.

Trainer: Kiaran McLaughlin. Yes, Todd Pletcher won $26 million in purses, but McLaughlin was neck-and-neck with Pletcher in terms of earnings per start. Winning the Belmont Stakes with Jazil and winning the Classic with Invasor off a three-month layoff put McLaughlin over the top in a close call.