01/01/2010 12:00AM

Horse of Year not the only close vote

Email
Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Kodiak Kowboy, winnner of the the Grade 1 Cigar Mile, has solid credentials for the Eclipse Award for male sprinters.

NEW YORK - Eclipse Award ballots are due Monday at 3 p.m. Eastern time, and even voters who have made their decision about Horse of the Year are faced with four other difficult choices among the 11 remaining equine divisional championships.

Seven of them are clear as a bell: Lookin at Lucky as 2-year-old male, Summer Bird as 3-year-old male, Rachel Alexandra as 3-year-old filly, Zenyatta as older female, Gio Ponti as turf male, Informed Decision as female sprinter, and Mixed Up as steeplechaser. The more troublesome choices are among the 2-year-old fillies, older males, turf females, and male sprinters.

The juvenile filly title boils down to Blind Luck vs. She Be Wild. (Hot Dixie Chick was faster than either, but it's tough to give a juvenile title to anyone whose season ends before racing beyond seven furlongs.) The top two contenders squared off once, with She Be Wild winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies while Blind Luck ran a close but troubled third.

Maybe that should have ended the discussion, but then Blind Luck came back with a stunning seven-length victory in the Hollywood Starlet, giving her two Grade 1 victories (she also won the Oak Leaf) to She Be Wild's one. The Starlet earned Blind Luck my vote, but this one could go either way without a grave injustice having been committed.

The older male title usually goes to the best older main-track performer in the country - there's a male grass title to honor the best turf horse - but this was the weakest and most inconsistent division of such horses in at least a decade, and not just because females won the Woodward and Breeders' Cup Classic. Every one of the division's other top route races had a different winner: Bribon (Met Mile), Bullsbay (Whitney), Einstein (Santa Anita Handicap), Furthest Land (BC Dirt Mile), Macho Again, (Foster), Rail Trip (Hollywood Gold Cup), Richard's Kid (Pacific Classic).

None had a championship season, leaving a choice between two specialists outside the usual lines: Gio Ponti, who won four Grade 1 grass races, and Kodiak Kowboy, who won three dirt Grade 1's but at only six, seven, and eight furlongs. I'm voting for Gio Ponti because he won at a range of eight to 11 furlongs and because his second to Zenyatta in the Classic at least gave him some multi-surface credentials.

Kodiak Kowboy, however, is my choice for champion sprinter. Both he and the California 3-year-old Zensational won three Grade 1 races, but Kodiak Kowboy's Carter, Vosburgh, and Cigar Mile triumphs came against far more accomplished fields than Zensational's Triple Bend, Bing Crosby, and Pat O'Brien. Kodiak Kowboy beat Fabulous Strike, Munnings, Vineyard Haven, and Pyro; the runners-up in Zensational's Grade 1's were Rush to Thunder, Talkin to Mom Roo, and Noble Court.

The grass female title has a raft of likeable and worthy contenders: Magical Fantasy won the most domestic Grade 1's with three; Midday beat the best field assembled all year in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf; Ventura won the Grade 1 Woodbine Mile and Matriarch and missed by just a nose to Gio Ponti in the Kilroe.

Among those three, I'd take Ventura, but I can't take her over Goldikova for the title, even though the latter raced here just once. First, Ventura's handlers could have run her against Goldikova in the Breeders' Cup Mile, but they understandably ducked the world's top-rated miler in favor of a seemingly easier bid for the female sprinter title in the Filly and Mare Sprint. That backfired when Ventura ran second to Informed Decision as she did earlier in the year at Keeneland.

When Miesque won consecutive Breeders' Cup Miles in 1987 and 1988, she was voted the turf female Eclipse in both seasons. Goldikova lost that vote to Forever Together last year, but no grass filly this year put together as comprehensive a campaign as Forever Together did last year. Goldikova deserves the title this time around.

However these four contested title races turn out, it appears that 2009 will have an unusually low correlation between winning a Breeders' Cup race and an Eclipse Award: As few as two (Zenyatta and Informed Decision) and no more than four (if She Be Wild and Goldikova prevail) of the divisional championships will go to horses who won a "world championship" Cup race, with the other six flat-racing titles going to horses who either lost in those races (Blind Luck, Gio Ponti, Lookin at Lucky, Summer Bird, and Zensational) or skipped them (Kodiak Kowboy and Rachel Alexandra).