02/24/2005 12:00AM

Honor our top female sprinters

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NEW YORK - It has been almost as long since there has been a change in the lineup of Eclipse Award categories for equine champions as it has been since we had a Triple Crown winner. In 1979, the year after Affirmed was the last to wear the crown, the Eclipse category for best grass horse was split into male and female divisions. That decision has allowed more than a score of additional grass specialists to be named champions, while sparing voters such impossible cross-gender choices as Cozzene vs. Pebbles in 1985, Sky Classic vs. Flawlessly in 1992 or, just this past year, Kitten's Joy vs. Ouija Board.

It is time to do the same thing for sprinters. Why do we honor a female grass horse every year but have to wait for a Ta Wee, Gold Beauty, or Safely Kept to come along once a decade and top the males to honor a filly sprinter?

There are currently 10 Eclipse Award categories, eight of them being male and female versions of the same division. Racing crowns one of each as a champion 2-year-old, 3-year-old, older horse, and grass horse. The two solo categories are for sprinting and steeplechasing, and no one in his right mind can argue that sprinting is no more important to American racing than steeplechasing.

Quick, name last year's champion steeplechaser. I have nothing against Hirapour, but aren't such names as Lady Tak or Bear Fan at least as important to the game and the breed and deserving of equal honors?

On numbers alone, sprinting is the backbone of American racing, Half of the 60,000 races conducted in this country are sprints, with roughly half of those being restricted to fillies. So something like a quarter of all the races run each year are deemed unworthy of producing even one of the sport's 10 Eclipse Awards, and half of all racing counts for only as much as a steeplechasing champion determined by fewer than 100 jump races annually.

Adding an Eclipse for best filly sprinter would not only be the fair thing to do but also would probably lead to some overdue changes on the stakes roster that could only add interest to the game. Currently, 3-and-up distaff sprinters are given only three Grade 1 opportunities a year with a mere trio of far-flung handicap races: the Santa Monica at Santa Anita in January, the Humana Distaff at Churchill on Derby Day, and the Ballerina at Saratoga in August.

Another eight races are Grade 2's - the A Gleam, Barbara Fritchie, Gallant Bloom, Genuine Risk, Honorable Miss, Princess Rooney, Shirley Jones, and Vagrancy - and a case could be made that a few of them are due for an upgrade. The problem is that with so few current Grade 1 opportunities, the contestants in these races tend to have insufficient Grade 1 credentials on their resumes to make the races obvious candidates for elevation.

Whatever their grade, these 11 races form a strong core from which a champion could emerge, especially if they were scheduled in such a way that they would make up a reasonable circuit or two. There's also an opportunity for some innovative track, especially a slots palace with purse money to burn, to put up a nice pot with a new race for this division instead of adding yet another extraneous so-called Derby prep.

Then the question arises: What should be the division's crowning event - forced participation against males in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, or is it time for a ninth Breeders' Cup race as well as an 11th Eclipse division?

One argument against a separate race is that it would remove the fun of seeing a Safely Kept or Xtra Heat take on the males. On the other hand, it's not as if the Sprint is exactly lacking for bodies or hot competition, and if we don't force Sweet Catomine, Ashado, or Ouija Board to run against the males, why do it to the sprinters?

There's also an obvious precedent for adding a Cup race. Female grass runners got their own Eclipse in 1979 but it took until 1999 to get their own Breeders' Cup race, the Filly and Mare Turf. Its winner has won the Eclipse Award five of six times since then, including the European imports Banks Hill, Islington, and Ouija Board. If we're going to have both a $1 million race and an Eclipse trophy basically there for the taking by Europe's top grass filly, there's no good reason not to do the same for America's top female sprinter.