02/02/2007 12:00AM

Hint of Eclipse revolution in the air


NEW YORK - The Eclipse Award results announced Monday night in Beverly Hills, Calif., included some heartening landslides and fascinating squeakers, but only one result that may have indicated a sea change in the way that racing chooses its champions.

Invasor's runaway selection as Horse of the Year, or at least the size of his electoral margin, seemed to surprise observers outside the industry who assumed Barbaro would get more support because he was the year's biggest household name. Voters rejected that idea by a 228-21 tally, consistent with their choices of Mineshaft over Funny Cide, Ghostzapper over Smarty Jones, and Saint Liam over Afleet Alex the last three years. The horse that accomplished the most gets the prize, just as it should be.

The selection of Miesque's Approval (74 votes) in a three-way photo over The Tin Man (69) and English Channel (63) had its pleasing aspects in a division so chaotic that any of those three would have been an acceptable choice. The biggest argument against Miesque's Approval was that the Breeders' Cup Mile was his lone Grade 1 victory of the season, but this is largely a function of an American stakes calendar that awards Grade 1 status to too many turf marathons and not enough shorter grass races.

It was a happy accident that despite 51 ballots wasted on marginal contenders and abstentions, the race for the owners' award ended in a tie between Darley and Lael Stables with 110 votes each. Both were deserving recipients, as were Edgar Prado or Garrett Gomez in the jockey category. Despite Prado's 152-90 victory, there was at least as strong a case to be made for Gomez, but it is impossible to begrudge Prado his first Eclipse after so much outstanding work the last few seasons.

The truly landmark result came in the 3-year-old filly category, where Wait a While got 138 votes to the late Pine Island's 108, with 25 votes scattered elsewhere. Either of these extraordinary fillies would have been a fine choice, and both were better than some recent honorees in the division. What makes Wait a While's selection almost radical, however, is that her championship work was predominantly done on the grass, while every other 3-year-old filly Eclipse champion of the past was primarily a dirt runner.

It's a situation without an equivalent among older horses, who are recognized separately in dirt and turf divisions. The older-male and older-female awards routinely go only to dirt horses because there are separate trophies for turf runners. Ouija Board, for example, was a 213-15 winner over Wait a While for the female grass award but was outpolled 213-2 by Fleet Indian in the straight filly and mare division.

The selection of Wait a While comes at an interesting time, because there is a proposal afoot to add a 3-year-old turf and 3-year-old filly-turf award to the Eclipse lineup. Had such an option existed this year, would the people who voted for Wait a While as the sole champion 3-year-old filly have voted her the turf award and Pine Island the dirt award?

Making Wait a While the champion of what had always been considered a dirt division is in some ways roughly equivalent to choosing Showing Up over Bernardini for this year's 3-year-old colt title or doing the same with Kitten's Joy over Smarty Jones two years ago. Those choices would never happen, given the prominence of the Triple Crown races and a stronger consensus that the best 3-year-old male should be a dirt horse.

The voters' willingness to do so in the 3-year-old filly division, however, suggests two things. First, it highlights the current absence of a structured series, or even a generally-accepted set of races, to determine the nation's best 3-year-old dirt filly. Neither the old (Kentucky Oaks/Black-Eyed Susan/C.C.A. Oaks) or newer New York (Acorn/Mother Goose/C.C.A. Oaks) version of a so-called "filly triple crown" have any currency left, and there is an unrealized opportunity in racing to create some kind of series for this division.

Second, it shows that there is more flexibility regarding which surfaces horses race on than in the past, an interesting benchmark given the debates we are going to start having very soon about championships and synthetic surfaces. Racing is no more than a year or two away from deciding whether a horse with multiple Grade 1 victories on synthetic surfaces in California and Kentucky should be awarded a traditional dirt-division title, and the sport is nearly as close to running an entire Breeders' Cup card over wax and rubber.

Perhaps we will end up with three champions in each division, one apiece for dirt, synthetic, and turf. That way, the Eclipse Award ceremonies could actually start on a Monday night and end sometime Tuesday afternoon, instead of merely seeming that way.