06/26/2006 12:00AM

If Eclipse Awards came out now . . .

Barbaro, Edgar Prado up, wins the 2006 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

NEW YORK - It may be hard to believe, but some horses who have accomplished a lot through the halfway point of this racing season might be nowhere when it comes to year-end Eclipse Award voting, which speaks to the profound impact of the Breeders' Cup and other fall races on the process of confirming our sport's champions.

With that in mind, here is one man's ballot for the first half champions of 2006.

Older males: With his victory in Saturday's Salvator Mile at Monmouth Park, Flower Alley just got in under the wire to become eligible for this "honor," but a victory in the Salvator Mile is not enough to be considered. For me, the three finalists are Lava Man, Surf Cat, and Brass Hat. Brass Hat won the New Orleans and Donn handicaps before his game second in the Dubai World Cup, but his meek fifth in the Foster left a sour taste. Surf Cat bordered on brilliant winning the San Carlos, Potrero Grande, and Mervyn LeRoy handicaps in his three starts this year, but as much as I like him, I can't give this particular award to a horse who didn't win a Grade 1. Lava Man gets the title off his 4-for-4 record, including scores in two million-dollar dirt races - the Sunshine Millions Classic and the Santa Anita Handicap - plus a Grade 1 turf win in the Charles Whittingham Handicap.

Older females: Whittling down a list of finalists in this solid and deep division was not easy, and I could only get it down to six: Happy Ticket, Oonagh Maccool, Round Pond, Take D' Tour, Spun Sugar, and Dubai Escapade. Dubai Escapade is undefeated in this country this year, but the longest distance at which she won a stakes was seven furlongs. As good as she is, for me, the real prestige is in route races. Round Pond and Spun Sugar each edged Happy Ticket in two stakes at Oaklawn Park, but Happy Ticket had the tougher trips on both occasions and could have - maybe should have - won both. Oonagh Maccool, off victories in the Rampart and Louisville handicaps, was probably the pro-tem leader of the division until she was edged by Happy Ticket in the Fleur de Lis. So that leaves Happy Ticket and Take D' Tour, an easy winner of the Shuvee and Ogden Phipps handicaps in her last two starts, with the nod going to Happy Ticket. I know she didn't win a Grade 1, but Happy Ticket gets the title because she did beat the previous leader of her division in the Fleur de Lis.

3-year-old males: Identifying the finalists in this division is easy, and they are Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, Preakness winner Bernardini, and Belmont winner Jazil. Since Jazil won the Belmont in the absence of the Derby and Preakness winners, he is the first to go. It all comes down to which performance you thought was the most impressive, Barbaro's romp in the Derby, or Bernardini's score in the Preakness. For me, it was unquestionably Barbaro's in the Derby. Not to knock the Preakness, but the Derby is the defining race for 3-year-olds. Barbaro takes this division.

3-year-old females: This division is so inscrutable, I don't think even Stephen Hawking could figure it out. Balance was the best early in the year off wins in the Las Virgenes and Santa Anita Oaks, only to follow with dismal efforts in the Ashland and Kentucky Oaks, and then came up with an ankle injury. Bushfire seemed the quintessential Keeneland fluke when she won the Ashland, especially after subsequently losing in the Kentucky Oaks, but then she won the Acorn. Lemons Forever ran by everyone in the Kentucky Oaks after previously showing no indication she was capable of such a thing. Even if she was 47-1, Lemons Forever gets the award because she won the most meaningful race so far this year for her division, but no one really earned it.

Turf males: Only a half-length separated Cacique, Relaxed Gesture, Grey Swallow, and English Channel in the Manhattan Handicap, and they, along with Lava Man, would be the finalists in this deep division. But I think the strongest turf race this year was the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, which, unlike the Manhattan, was run on firm ground, and featured a more honest pace. And because English Channel was a decisive winner of that race, he gets my vote, although I can certainly understand if you disagree.

Turf females: The three most accomplished turf mares so far this year are Gorella, Honey Ryder, and Silver Cup. Even though Gorella has only one stakes win - compared with Honey Ryder's wins in the Orchid and Sheepshead Bay, and Silver Cup's scores in the San Gorgonio, Buena Vista, and Santa Ana - she still wins this title in resounding fashion. Gorella showed an incredible late kick to get up to win the Just a Game, and that, along with her fine effort against males in the Woodford Reserve, in which she was beaten less than two lengths by English Channel despite traffic trouble, were the two best turf performances by a female this year.

Sprinters: The three finalists here are Bordonaro, winner of the Sunshine Millions Sprint and Count Fleet Handicap; Silver Train, winner of the Met Mile; and Surf Cat, whose first two wins this year were excellent performances in sprint stakes. While I have no knocks on Surf Cat, Silver Train is increasingly looking like a Belmont Park specialist, and my vote goes to Bordonaro. He was just so powerful when he won the Count Fleet that I doubt any sprinter around could have beaten him that day.

And who is my 2006 Horse of the First Half of the Year? Barbaro, purely because of the way he captured the public's imagination in the days between the Derby and his ill-fated Preakness.

And that, plus $2, gets you a $1 exacta box.