01/10/2003 12:00AM

Make 'Eclipse finalist' meaningful term


NEW YORK - For all the annual hand-wringing and public debate about how the Eclipse Awards are decided and administered, you would think that unworthy champions are routinely crowned. The truth is that while the electoral-college system involving three voting blocs (including Daily Racing Form) may be arcane and confusing, it works.

There will always be close calls in divisions where no one truly dominates, such as the older males of 2002, and Horse of the Year can mean different things in different years: the best and fastest horse in the land in some seasons, a specialist with an extraordinary record in others. Such ambiguities are unavoidable, but the right horses are usually honored.

To suggest, as Bob Baffert did earlier this week, that the system needs to be overhauled, is an overreaction. Still, Baffert has an entirely legitimate beef with one aspect of the current presentation: the way that "finalists" for each award, announced three weeks before the ceremony, are determined.

Fortunately, it's a flaw that can be easily corrected.

While graciously saying that he believes Bobby Frankel "hands down" deserves this year's Eclipse as the outstanding trainer, Baffert was understandably peeved not to be one of the three finalists announced last week. Laura de Seroux did outstanding work with Azeri and Astra, and Steve Asmussen won a ton of races around the country, but neither rationally can be said to have had a better year than Baffert, who won two-thirds of the Triple Crown and trained both the likely champion 2-year-old and 3-year-old.

Similarly, it makes no sense that in the 2-year-old filly division, Storm Flag Flying and Awesome Humor were the only finalists while the Baffert-trained Composure didn't get a mention. Storm Flag Flying is the clear champion, but Composure without question was the second-best 2-year-old filly on the planet.

The problem in both cases is that voters make only a single selection in each category. So if there were 200 votes cast for 2-year-old filly and Storm Flag Flying got 199 of them and Awesome Humor got one, they are the two finalists - even if Composure would have been the second choice of 199 voters. Similarly, Frankel will win the training title in a landslide with de Seroux and Asmussen getting a handful of first-place votes even though Baffert would clearly have been almost everyone's second choice.

This system is unfair and is an invitation to even greater embarrassment. Azeri got every single vote for champion older filly, but if a single capricious or mischievous voter had written in the name of the mule Black Ruby or some beloved local $5,000 claimer, that selection would have become the other Eclipse Award finalist.

Using only first-place votes and designating someone a finalist for receiving only one or two of them leads to other anomalies. Rock of Gibraltar is a finalist for Horse of the Year but not for champion 3-year-old, while High Chaparral is not a finalist for Horse of the Year but is likely to trounce Rock of Gibraltar for champion grass horse.

The clear solution is for voters to make three choices in every category and to tabulate the results on a

5-3-1 or 10-5-1 point system. The runners-up on total points would be the right ones instead of eccentric choices receiving one or two first-place votes. (A useful further refinement would be to continue to use only first-place votes to determine the winner, but to use the second- and third-place votes to determine the other finalists. This would prevent voters in a close race from boosting their choice's chances by omitting the logical second choice in an attempt to skew the tally.)

Under this procedure, being a runner-up for an Eclipse would become a meaningful honor. Baffert and Composure both would have been finalists this year and rightly recognized as among the top three in their divisions. The tabulation of votes might cost a little bit more but it's a tiny price to pay for preserving an accurate historical record and honoring the sport's truly deserving performers.

Racing better for Battle, Phipps

Speaking of deserving winners, Daily Racing Form is proud to have been part of the enthusiastic and unanimous committee selections of Howard Battle and Ogden Phipps to receive this year's Eclipse Award of Merit.

While it is a shame that they are receiving the awards posthumously, both men's love of the sport was its own reward during their lifetimes. The statuettes that will be presented to their families, and the standing ovations they will receive, are tokens of racing's appreciation for their distinguished careers. Either could have been honored years ago, but since they were not - Battle because of his relative youth, Phipps through sheer oversight, since he has been recognized with every other honor in the sport - it seems highly appropriate to do so now at the first opportunity.

Racing is fortunate to be populated with an overflow of individuals who have made a lifetime of admirable contributions to the sport and who would be worthy recipients of the Eclipse Award of Merit. Choosing among them is a nice problem to have.