01/05/2004 1:00AM

Narrower - but no clearer

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Eclipse Awards finalist Congaree (older male and sprinter). Winners will be announced Jan. 26.

Selecting the Eclipse Award winners of 2003 was a difficult chore, since so many of the categories did not have a clear-cut champion. Narrowing each category to three finalists was far easier.

There were few surprises when the three were announced Monday by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. Empire Maker and Funny Cide were among the finalists for champion 3-year-old male, Azeri and Sightseek for older filly or mare, Aldebaran and Cajun Beat for champion sprinter. But the question of who will win those categories will be debated right up until the envelopes are opened at the 33rd annual Eclipse Awards dinner on Jan. 26 at the Westin Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, Fla.

The biggest prize is Horse of the Year, which is expected to go to Mineshaft, one of the finalists for champion older horse. In a change from past years, the finalists for Horse of the Year were not announced, thus preventing sharp observers from divining who had won some of the divisional titles.

There were several other changes to the voting this year. For the first time, all three voting organizations - the racing secretaries of NTRA member tracks, the National Turf Writers Association, and Daily Racing Form - had their votes tallied collectively, instead of using the bloc voting that had led to confusion in the past. Also, voters chose their top three selections in each division, so as to have three finalists in every category. That is why Ashado and Victory U. S. A. were announced as finalists with Halfbridled for champion 2-year-old filly, even though Halfbridled might well have received every first-place vote. The horse with the most first-place votes in each category will be named champion.

In addition to Halfbridled (2-year-old filly) and Mineshaft (older horse), the other virtual certainty is champion steeplechase horse. McDynamo, who was a romping winner of three Grade 1 races, including the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase, is a heavy favorite against Pelagos and Praise the Prince.

The biggest surprise might have been the exclusion of Composure from the three finalists for champion 3-year-old filly. Composure won two Grade 1 races in two starts, but never raced past March. Elloluv, whom Composure beat in both those races, is a finalist, along with Bird Town, who won the Kentucky Oaks and Acorn Stakes, and Six Perfections, who beat the boys in the Breeders' Cup Mile in her lone start in this country. Island Fashion, who won the Alabama and La Brea, also missed the top three.

Many of the divisions are complete toss-ups. Triple Crown rivals Empire Maker and Funny Cide are vying for the 3-year-old male championship. Ten Most Wanted is the other finalist in that division. Azeri and Sightseek - who never faced each other - are the top finalists for champion older filly or mare, along with Adoration, the Breeders' Cup Distaff winner. The versatile Congaree joins multiple sprint stakes winner Aldebaran and Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Cajun Beat as finalists for champion sprinter.

Congaree is also a finalist for champion older horse, along with Mineshaft and Medaglia d'Oro. This was the deepest division in the country last year. Among those who did not finish in the top three with Eclipse voters were Perfect Drift, who defeated Mineshaft in the Stephen Foster Handicap; Candy Ride, the unbeaten winner of the Pacific Classic; and Pleasantly Perfect, who won the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Several other categories are wide open. Breeders' Cup winners Islington (Filly and Mare Turf) and Six Perfections (Mile) join two-time Grade 1 winner Heat Haze as finalists for champion female turf runner. High Chaparral and Johar - who finished in a dead heat in the Breeders' Cup Turf - are finalists for champion male turf horse along with Storming Home, who won two Grade 1 races but is best known for the right-hand turn he made at the end of the Arlington Million, which cost him that race. Sulamani, who was placed first in the Million, did not finish in the top three.

Action This Day, the winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, is a finalist for champion 2-year-old colt along with Birdstone and Cuvee. Not making the cut were stakes winners Ruler's Court, Eurosilver, Cactus Ridge, and Lion Heart.

Richard Mandella, the trainer of Action This Day and Halfbridled, is a finalist for champion trainer along with Bobby Frankel and Todd Pletcher. Frankel is considered the slight favorite over Mandella, with Pletcher a longshot. Frankel has won the Eclipse Award as champion trainer the last three years, and four times overall.

Frankel's frequent collaborator, Jerry Bailey, is favored to win a record seventh Eclipse Award as champion jockey. The other finalists are Edgar Prado and Patrick Valenzuela, who swept the titles at all five major meetings in Southern California last year.

Frankel's primary client, the Juddmonte Farms of Prince Khalid Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, is a finalist for both champion owner and champion breeder. Juddmonte has been champion breeder three times previously, and last year was represented by nationally prominent runners Empire Maker, Heat Haze, and Sightseek. The other finalists for champion breeder are Frank Stronach and the Niarchos family. Although Six Perfections was bred by the Niarchos family, she was inadvertently omitted from a supplementary list of information on leading breeders that was sent to Eclipse voters.

Juddmonte's rivals for champion owner are Ed Gann - another Frankel client - and Michael Gill, the controversial owner whose claiming-based stable led the nation in purse earnings.

Ryan Fogelsonger, the champion apprentice jockey of 2002, is a finalist for the same title in 2003; he rode for the first part of 2003 as an apprentice. Eddie Castro, who led the nation's rookie riders in victories and purse earnings, and Pablo Fragoso are the other finalists.