10/27/2003 12:00AM

Let the Eclipse debates begin

Halfbridled (in front) wins the Juvenile Fillies to end all debate over the 2003 Eclipse Award winner in that category. The other categories aren't nearly as clear-cut.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The Breeders' Cup is supposed to decide year-end championships, and though this year's running made several categories, including Horse of the Year, much clearer, a smoky haze, like the one lingering over Southern California on Monday, still wafted over a number of other divisions.

Perfect Drift certainly could have secured Horse of the Year with a victory in the Classic, and Medaglia d'Oro might have had a shot as well, but both lost Saturday at Santa Anita. That leaves Mineshaft, who accomplished more than any other horse before the Breeders' Cup and then was retired prior to the Classic, as the most logical choice for Eclipse Award voters at year's end.

"Other than not, unfortunately, running in the Breeders' Cup, he made it through the whole season," said Mineshaft's trainer, Neil Howard, from his barn at Churchill Downs on Monday. "He did everything a handicap horse should do. He traveled, he won at a distance, he ran on fast tracks and on sloppy tracks, he ran good times, and he won with authority. I was humbled to have a horse like him."

Mineshaft also seems certain to win the title as champion older horse.

Perfect Drift, who beat Mineshaft in the Stephen Foster Handicap in June, returned to Kentucky on Monday. "We're disappointed he had bad luck in the race, but he had a huge amount of luck the rest of the year," his trainer, Murray Johnson, said Monday from Kentucky. Perfect Drift had to check on the first turn of the Classic.

Johnson said Perfect Drift, a gelding, would get a lengthy rest and would not go back into training until late January or February.

"Dubai," Johnson said, referring to the Dubai World Cup in March, "is out. He'll have a similar campaign to this past year."

A few other categories are clear-cut. Halfbridled, who completed a perfect 4-for-4 season with a victory in the Juvenile Fillies, should be a unanimous choice as champion 2-year-old filly. Jerry Bailey, who could set a record for purse earnings this year and won the Mile with Six Perfections, is the front-runner to win his seventh Eclipse Award as champion jockey.

Islington makes a compelling case for champion female turf horse. She had built-in sentiment this year following her brutal trip in last year's Filly and Mare Turf, and her victory this year came at the expense of the division's acknowledged leaders, Dimitrova, Heat Haze, Tates Creek, and Voodoo Dancer. Six Perfections could also garner votes.

After that, though, it gets very difficult, starting with a conundrum for champion trainer. Do you reward the sustained, year-long excellence of Bobby Frankel, who has won a record 23 Grade 1 races in 2003, but who flopped on Breeders' Cup Day, or the unprecedented single-day feat of Richard Mandella, whose own strong year has four Breeders' Cup wins as a compelling exclamation point?

Champion 3-year-old colt is another tough call. Had either Funny Cide or Ten Most Wanted won the Classic, or even come close, that might have swayed voters to their corner. But now both are in a dogfight with Empire Maker, who beat both in the Belmont Stakes, but lost to Funny Cide in the Derby, and failed to answer the bell when Ten Most Wanted won the Travers.

Elloluv or Lady Tak might have clinched champion 3-year-old filly had either won the Distaff, and while Elloluv's second-place finish to the older filly Adoration enhances her candidacy, is it enough to beat out Bird Town, the winner of the Kentucky Oaks and Acorn Stakes, or early-season star Composure? Wise-guy voters might even go for grass specialist Six Perfections.

The Distaff also could have been the crowning moment for Sightseek, but her dull fourth-place finish as the favorite might very well swing voters to Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year, who surrendered huge chunks of weight in every race and lost just the Lady's Secret, which likely will prove to be her final career start.

Cuvee would have locked up champion 2-year-old colt had he won the Juvenile, in which he was favored, but he stopped badly and finished last. The Juvenile winner, Action This Day, owned only a maiden win entering the race, so he might need to run again in the Hollywood Futurity and win that race to give him a leg up on rivals such as Birdstone, Eurosilver, and Rulers Court, all of whom won major preps for the Juvenile and then bypassed the Breeders' Cup.

Aldebaran is another Breeders' Cup favorite who could have made championship talk moot with a victory, but his loss in the Sprint forces voters to also seriously consider Congaree, who beat Aldebaran in the Carter, and Cajun Beat, the Sprint winner.

That's an easy category, though, compared to champion male turf horse. Either Storming Home or Sulamani could have wrapped up the Eclipse Award with a victory in the Turf, and though both remain strong candidates, both were soundly defeated by High Chaparral and Johar, who finished in a dead heat. High Chaparral is the defending champion in this division. Can he win a second Eclipse Award after again racing just once in this country?

These are among the questions that will face Eclipse Award voters at year's end. Perhaps by then all the brushfires, both real and metaphoric, will be put out.