10/24/2005 11:00PM

Losing little one, winning the big one

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WASHINGTON - The Breeders' Cup races are only a few days away, but a sharp debate is already under way about their possible impact on the sport's year-end championships. The arguments center on the 3-year-old Lost in the Fog, who will bring a 10-for-10 career record into the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

If he wins, Lost in the Fog will, naturally, earn the Eclipse Award as the outstanding sprinter of 2005. But might he also be named the champion 3-year-old over Triple Crown hero Afleet Alex? Might he even deserve to be Horse of the Year?

Lost in the Fog has many cheerleaders. The horse-racing network TVG asked viewers to send e-mails giving reasons that he should be the champion 3-year-old. A questioner at a news conference Wednesday asked the colt's trainer, Greg Gilchrist, incredulously, "Is it possible you won't get [the 3-year-old title] over Afleet Alex?"

Lost in the Fog poses some seemingly difficult questions for voters, because there are no explicit criteria governing the Eclipse Awards. But anyone who studies history and precedent should come to these conclusions: The sprinter cannot be awarded the 3-year-old championship, even if he wins the Breeders' Cup Sprint with a phenomenal performance. But the right set of circumstances might give him a chance to be Horse of the Year.

A journalist from northern California, Lost in the Fog's home base, asked me this question recently: If human 100-yard-dash runners are as celebrated as milers and marathoners, why don't Thoroughbred sprinters get as much respect as their distance-running counterparts?

This is a reasonable question, and the answer is: That's the way it has always been. Ever since the Thoroughbred species was created in the 1700's, the object of breeders has been to produce horses with a combination of speed and stamina. And stamina is what makes champions. The most important event in every racing nation is run at 1 1/4 miles or 1 1/2 miles.

In the United States, championships usually go to horses who excel in races at 1 1/8 miles or longer on the dirt. That's why separate categories were created to honor the best sprinter and the best male and female turf runners. There are no awards specifically for distance runners on the dirt, because most categories are tacitly for such horses.

Of all the Eclipse Awards, the voting for the champion 3-year-old male is usually the most straightforward, because there is a definitive competitive test to determine the winner. It's called the Triple Crown, and a horse who excels in the spring series is almost always named the champion. Since the Eclipse Award format was created in 1971, 23 horses have won at last two of the three classics, and 21 of them won the Eclipse. (In the other two years, the title went to a colt who beat older rivals in major fall stakes races.)

After Afleet Alex narrowly lost the Kentucky Derby, he won the Preakness in a race that will be on highlight films for years, and captured the Belmont in a runaway. He did all he needed to do to be the 3-year-old champion - and a worthy one. Denying him the Eclipse Award would overturn decades of precedent.

While the Triple Crown usually decides the 3-year-old title, no race or series of races automatically crowns the Horse of the Year.

(The Breeders' Cup Classic is important, of course, but its winner has been Horse of the Year only three times in the last dozen years.)

The sport's top honor usually goes to the horse who has been the outstanding performer in races at 1 1/8 miles or longer on the dirt. If there is no standout in such races, voters may opt for a standout in another category such as a 2-year-old (Secretariat in 1972), a filly (Azeri in 2002), a turf specialist (Kotashaan in 1993). They might even choose a sprinter, though this has not happened yet. If either of the favorites, Saint Liam and Rock Hard Ten, wins the Classic, he will have compiled a solid enough overall record to be Horse of the Year. There may be some debate or controversy, but such worthy distance runners are almost never bypassed. If these two lose, the Horse of the Year race will be so wide open that an undefeated sprinter could be a viable choice.

It might seem contradictory to argue that Afleet Alex must win the 3-year-old title over Lost in the Fog, but that Lost in the Fog could be named Horse of the Year over Afleet Alex and everybody else. But while Afleet Alex has amply met the criteria to be the champ of his age group, an injury kept him from facing and beating older horses - a reasonable criterion for 3-year-olds who aspire to be Horse of the Year. In most scenarios, Lost in the Fog will have to settle for the Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding sprinter. But if the Breeders' Cup Classic produces a result that discredits the leading distance runners, the arguments over the 2005 Thoroughbred championships are just beginning.

(c) 2005, The Washington Post