12/08/2003 12:00AM

Juvenile Eclipse is a toss-up

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NEW YORK - There has been a lot of debate over whether it should be Empire Maker or Funny Cide for this year's champion 3-year-old male, and there has been some discussion concerning the sprint title. But, one division that people don't want to touch with a 10-foot pole is the 2-year-old male division.

There's good reason. There really isn't a champion 2-year-old colt or gelding this year, at least in the conventional sense. No member of this class proved he was better than the rest, let alone achieved dominance, and that is because none - incredibly, none - of the leading candidates ran against each other.

Because of this, it is impossible to be genuinely opinionated and argue a case passionately for anyone. That, however, does not mean the leading candidates cannot be analyzed. They actually can be analyzed in an unusually objective fashion, and that may lead to a rational selection for the title.

Maybe.

Any list of leading candidates for the 2-year-old male Eclipse Award has to begin with the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner - even this year's Juvenile winner, Action This Day. In the first 19 years of the Breeders' Cup, from 1984 through 2002, 15 Juvenile winners went on to become divisional champions, and one, Favorite Trick in 1997, was also voted Horse of the Year. And, of the four Juveniles where the winner was not named champion, the eventual divisional champion ran in two of them.

But, it is widely acknowledged that this year's Juvenile was the weakest in history. Action This Day won in a time nearly a full second slower than Halfbridled took to win the Juvenile Fillies after she broke from post 14. He beat only two graded stakes winners and seven opponents who, like him, were eligible to the "nonwinners of a race other than" allowance condition. This year's Juvenile lacked the winners of such races as the Champagne, Norfolk, and Breeders' Futurity. So, given the fact that Action This Day won a Juvenile that was far from definitive, he doesn't deserve, and may not get, the automatic vote so many other Breeders' Cup Juvenile winners receive.

Of course, it can be argued that since none of the other leading candidates for 2-year-old male champion raced against each other, the races they won weren't definitive, either. That may be true, but at least a couple of these candidates have been flattered by the results of subsequent 2-year-old stakes.

For example, Birdstone looked very good winning the Champagne Stakes to make amends for his subpar effort in the Hopeful and improve his record to two wins from three starts. Birdstone's Champagne has looked even better lately, thanks to Read the Footnotes. Read the Footnotes galloped in his first two starts but was sixth in the Champagne, beaten 15 lengths, without a visible excuse. Then, Read the Footnotes came back to score decisively in both the Nashua and Remsen.

Another example is Eurosilver, who improved his record to 2 for 3 with a runaway score in the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity after making the kind of off-the-pace move from an outside post that is rarely successful at Keeneland. Eurosilver's strong performance took on an added glow when The Cliff's Edge, who finished sixth in the Breeders' Futurity, came back to win both the Iroquois and Kentucky Jockey Club stakes.

The same cannot be said of Ruler's Court, who rates as a leading title contender off the dramatic improvement he displayed with blinkers on in winning the Norfolk by a double-digit margin. He skipped the Breeders' Cup, just as Birdstone and Eurosilver did. However, the runner-up in the Norfolk, Capitano, was a dismal sixth in the Juvenile, and Perfect Moon, who finished third in the Norfolk, came back to lose against a modest group in Friday's Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs.

One wild card in the 2-year-old male championship is Lion Heart. He began his career the day before the Breeders' Cup, won his first start, and then ran away with the Hollywood Prevue Stakes. Lion Heart is to conclude his 2-year-old campaign in the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity a week from Saturday. Although he won't face a strong field, should he win by a pole and in strong time, he would merit serious consideration.

So, what is my conclusion? I believe Eurosilver may be the best horse in this group - he and Tapit, who was so impressive staying undefeated in the Laurel Futurity but who hasn't accomplished enough to be considered a title contender. But, even if I believe Eurosilver is the best of the bunch, he did not win a

Grade 1 event, and frankly, I have trouble voting for a horse to become a champion without a Grade 1 victory.

In my opinion, Birdstone won what was arguably the strongest 2-year-old race this year in the Champagne. So on that basis, he'll get my vote.

At least that's how I feel today.