12/19/2003 1:00AM

My checklist for choosing a champ


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It is hard to understand all the hand-wringing over this year's Eclipse Award ballot. The categories, for the most part, are cut and dried. The ballot could be filled out between Christmas parties without missing a beat. It's not like trying to figure out the difference between Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman, so stop agonizing.

Of course, this citizen must confess to a checkered record when exercising the sacred right of the ballot box. At one time or another, votes have been cast for Gore Vidal (for U.S. senator), John Anderson (for president), and Milli Vanilli (for best new artists of 1989 on the MTV fans poll). To prevent such fiascoes in my Eclipse picks, I try to follow a few basic guidelines:

Rule No. 1: Returning champions get the benefit of the doubt, which means Azeri is the proper choice over Sightseek in the category of older female, and High Chaparral gets the nod in the male turf division.

The only thing Azeri did wrong was hurt her ankle while trying to win her 12th straight race in the Lady's Secret Handicap at Santa Anita. Everything else was up to her high standards. High Chaparral won his second straight Breeders' Cup Turf (okay, dead-heated) under conditions dramatically different from his first victory in 2002, displaying the ability not to be fazed by either the deep going at chilly Arlington or the sun-baked ground at blistering Santa Anita. Now that's a champion.

Rule No. 2: In case of a tie, go with the most important race, which means Funny Cide is the 3-year-old male champ and Action This Day takes the trophy for the 2-year-old boys.

Empire Maker, Ten Most Wanted, Peace Rules, and Funny Cide were all multiple winners of major 3-year-old events. They also ran against each other enough to invoke the old gunfighter's line about which guy was faster: "I'd hate to live on the difference."

The case is tipped to Funny Cide, though, because of those entertaining and thoroughly professional triumphs in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Unless we have been badly misinformed, those are still two of the three most telling races for the division.

Among the 2-year-olds, no fewer than eight young bucks boasted a single victory in a major race at a mile or more, with a ninth to be added after Saturday's Hollywood Futurity. However, the one thing Birdstone, Cactus Ridge, Cuvee, Eurosilver, Read the Footnotes, Ruler's Court, and Tapit did not do was win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Action This Day did, and with absolute clarity. Whether or not he fades from memory - along with such Juvenile-winning champions as Anees and Answer Lively - remains to be seen. The vote is based on what they have done, not how they might embarrass voters down the road.

Rule No. 3: Wait for the end of the year to select year-end champions.

If Elloluv were to add the La Brea Stakes (a Grade 1 event) at Santa Anita on Dec. 27 to her previous wins in the Santa Ynez and the Ashland, along with solid seconds against older mares in the Lady's Secret and the Breeders' Cup Distaff, her cumulative record would look very good when compared to Bird Town's Kentucky Oaks-Acorn double.

So what's the rush? Set the ballot aside for a week. They're not due until Monday, Dec. 29, and they can be faxed right up until the 5 p.m. Eastern deadline.

In other categories, it would be a shame if the Juddmonte Farms operation goes home without at least one champion. Luckily, it has two candidates in the female turf division - Tates Creek and Heat Haze.

Tates Creek was best in three tough California races, but never traveled. Heat Haze, on the other hand, won stakes in Kentucky, California, and Chicago, at distances from 6 1/2 furlongs to 1 3/16 miles. She gets the nod, and she just might win if Islington and Six Perfections split the Breeders' Cup vote.

Finally, we arrive at the impossible - the older male division. Everyone should have trouble with this one, since the five best horses in competition during 2003 all fall under the same category, and only one of them can win.

To settle upon Candy Ride, Congaree, Medaglia d'Oro, Mineshaft, or Pleasantly Perfect is a thankless task. Sophie had an easier choice. While it may be blasphemous to make a comparison, the older stars of '03 exhumed memories of 1964, when Kelso, Gun Bow, Mongo, and Colorado King took the game to giddy heights.

Mineshaft's victories in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Woodward, Suburban, and Pimlico Special were grand, but they were no more impressive than Congaree's exemplary work in the San Antonio, Carter, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Cigar Mile. Candy Ride's Pacific Classic was priceless, Pleasantly Perfect lived up to his promise in the Breeders' Cup, and Medaglia d'Oro ranged back and forth across the country, always the horse to beat.

Homage must be paid, though, to horses who sustain their quality over a variety of courses and distances, while defying the ravages of time. Congaree's campaign ran from early January to late December, while Mineshaft's lasted nearly as long. Either would make a great champion, so here's hoping for a flat-footed tie when all the votes are counted. This one, anyway, will be going to the most versatile, flamboyant runner of the memorable 2003 season.

Here's to Congaree.