11/04/2009 12:00AM

Many titles are truly up for grabs


NEW YORK - Get ready to hear the words champion and championships approximately 1,872 times during the week ahead, since the Breeders' Cup insists on calling its event the "World Championships," its two days of racing "Championship Friday" and "Championship Saturday," and all 14 of the race winners on those days "Breeders' Cup champions."

In fact, American flat racing has 10 actual champions each year: the winners of the 10 divisional Eclipse Awards, a male and female selection in the five categories of 2-year-old, 3-year-old, older horse, turf horse, and sprinter. One of those 10 is then given the additional title and trophy as the Horse of the Year.

Eight of the 14 Breeders' Cup races correspond directly to those 10 awards (only eight because 3-year-olds and older runners have been merged by this point in the year, and face one another in the Classic and Ladies' Classic.) The six other Cup races do not decide any championships because there are no awards for juvenile turf horses, milers, marathoners, and turf sprinters.

Those eight Cup races weigh heavily on the 10 awards - 20 of the first 25 winners of the Juvenile, for example, have been named champion 2-year-old colt at season's end - but do not automatically crown champions. Three of the last 10 Horse of the Year titlists (Charismatic, Point Given, and Mineshaft) were retired before the Cup, and last year's landslide winner, Curlin, finished fourth in the Classic.

What about this year? Going division by division, it seems that most of the titles are still up for grabs.

* Two-year-old male: Lookin at Lucky, the only dual Grade 1 winner in the crop, will sew up the male title if he comes through as the favorite in the Juvenile. D' Funnybone and Noble's Promise, the only other American-based graded-stakes winners, are probably the only others who would absolutely clinch the title with a victory. A chaotic result could extend the title race beyond the Cup and focus attention on races such as the Hollywood Futurity, Remsen, and Kentucky Jockey Club.

* Two-year-old filly: The division leaders are the sidelined dual stakes winners Hot Dixie Chick and Mi Sueno but neither raced beyond seven furlongs and they are likely to be overtaken by whomever wins the Juvenile Fillies.

* Three-year-old male: The only way that Summer Bird can lose this award is if Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird wins the Classic. Otherwise, Summer Bird is an easy choice with victories in the Belmont, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Mine That Bird's record this year would be 1 for 8.

* Three-year-old filly: Rachel Alexandra.

* Turf male: Conduit won this award last year for a single American appearance winning the Turf, but even if he wins that race again he's unlikely to win a second Eclipse. There were no plausible alternatives last year - Conduit got five times as many votes as any of nine others - but this year Gio Ponti, who is trying the Classic, probably clinched the title winning four straight Grade 1 grass races earlier this year.

* Turf female: This award will probably be decided by the Filly and Mare Turf, which attracted the four fillies who have won the division's six major races - Dynaforce, Forever Together, Magical Fantasy, and Pure Clan. One longshot scenario: If the Filly and Mare Turf is won by an outsider, the British filly Dar Re Mi could enter the title picture if she were to defeat males in the Turf.

* Older male: In a division where every main-track Grade 1 race has gone to a different horse, any older male who wins the Classic probably gets the nod. If a 3-year-old (or a mare) prevails, it's going to be a very difficult choice and there will be some legitimate sentiment for Gio Ponti - while traditionally a main-track division, there's no rule against recognizing a dominant grass horse.

* Older female: If Zenyatta takes on males in the Classic and loses, she will still probably get this award, but a decisive Ladies' Classic victory by Music Note would leave both her and Zenyatta with three Grade 1 victories this year and it could be argued that winning the Ballerina, Beldame, and Ladies' Classic is as good as winning the Vanity, Clement Hirsch, and Lady's Secret.

* Sprinters: Zensational, Kodiak Kowboy, and probably Gayego can clinch the male title with a Sprint victory. The same goes for Informed Decision, Ventura, and probably Game Face in the Filly and Mare Sprint.

By my count, that makes nine of the sport's 10 divisional championships still to be decided, with eight of the 14 Breeders' Cup races playing a major and probably definitive role in deciding them. That's short of the hyperbolic promotion, but still makes for two extremely important and compelling days of racing.