02/18/2007 12:00AM

New Eclipse is well-deserved

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NEW YORK - The announcement Friday that only one new Eclipse Award will be added to the lineup of championships for 2007 was met with surprise and disappointment in some quarters, given that as many as seven new championship divisions had been proposed and that several new Breeders' Cup races have been added this year. As a member of the committee that made the decision - Daily Racing Form co-presents the Eclipses with the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and the National Turf Writers Association - I can provide a window into some of the thinking behind it.

The new Eclipse will be for a champion filly or mare sprinter, a choice that met with virtually unanimous approval from constituents of the three groups as well as an advisory committee of over 25 racing secretaries who participated in the process. The Eclipses currently honor a distaff equivalent in every other flat-racing division - 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, older horses, and grass horses - and the new Breeders' cup Filly and Mare Sprint provides an ideal year-end event for the division.

Another key element in its approval was agreement that there are a sufficient number of meaningful, established graded races in the division to fairly crown a champion on the basis of more than single performance. The 2007 racing calendar has 41 non-juvenile graded stakes for females at six to seven furlongs, 17 of them for 3-year-olds with the rest open to 3-year-olds and up.

With the new F&M Sprint race likely to receive Grade 1 status for its inaugural running, there will be five well-spaced, geographically diverse Grade 1 events in the older female sprint division: the Santa Monica at Santa Anita in January, the Humana Distaff at Churchill in May, the Princess Rooney at Calder in July, and the Ballerina at Saratoga in August leading up to the new race. Some of the current fall Grade 2's, such as the Gallant Bloom at Belmont and Raven Run at Keeneland, could be upgraded in years to come if they prove to be pivotal preps.

The other proposed Eclipse Awards that came closest to making the cut were ones for a 3-year-old male turf and a 3-year-old filly turf champion. This was a very close call that could have gone either way, and there was some extra momentum for adding them given the championship-caliber 2006 campaigns of Showing Up and Wait a While, who would have been easy and worthy choices last year.

These awards will be reconsidered in future years, but the prevailing feeling was that there may not yet be a sufficiently deep or well-defined path to these titles. There currently are only two Grade 1 races for 3-year-old grass males, the Secretariat at Arlington and the Hollywood Derby, and no one wants to add Grade 1 races restricted to 3-year-olds to the fall calendar, as these would diminish the existing 3-and-up races at a time of year when 3-year-olds should be meeting their elders. Those who do so successfully already are eligible for the male turf horse award, which was awarded to the 3-year-old Kitten's Joy three years ago.

The 3-year-old grass fillies have a deeper program, with four current Grade 1's - the American Oaks, Del Mar Oaks, Garden City, and Queen Elizabeth II - but opponents of a new award argued that there is nothing to stop voters from honoring a truly outstanding 3-year-old grass filly as either the champion female grass horse or, as happened with Wait a While this year, as the overall champion 3-year-old filly.

A proposed turf-sprinter award was quickly dismissed, as there are currently just nine graded turf sprints on the calendar, none above a Grade 3. A trickier matter is the question of whether and how to honor milers and how to parse such awards by gender and surface. There was no enthusiasm for creating four new awards to cover all permutations, but there is a lingering disconnect in the failure to honor milers at all, given how prized they are in international racing and breeding and that we now have two Breeders' Cup races for them.

The problem is that there are only two Grade 1 dirt miles for older males, both in New York, the Metropolitan and the Cigar Mile, and that several prominent tracks are unable to offer one-mile dirt races because they lack chutes. (Dragging two-turn races into the equation and bending the definition to include races at a mile and 70 or 110 yards probably crosses too many boundaries.)

Still, enough major tracks have them - including Aqueduct, Arlington, Belmont, Churchill and Hollywood - that there is probably an opportunity here for not only a new award but also an important and appealing series of Grade 1 one-turn mile races that would decide it. Perhaps a few of these tracks could get together, and either lengthen and enrich some of their existing graded sprint stakes or create some new ones. Just as racing had been remiss in honoring its best filly sprinters, it now needs to honor its milers, but first it needs to create more opportunities for them.