12/14/2007 12:00AM

No Eclipse? It's no disgrace

EmailINGLEWOOD, Calif. - Upon entering the Santa Anita backstretch through the main stable gate, the first horse usually visible to the human eye is Nashoba's Key. The filly, soon to be a mare, lives in the first stall of the second barn on the right and spends most of her time at her webbing, ears twitching, scouting the landscape. Chances are, Nashoba's Key will spot you before you see her.

She is the kind of horse whose every move deserves attention, and in a perfect world, Nashoba's Key even would be hailed as a champion. How else does one describe a Thoroughbred who wins seven of eight starts, six of the wins in stakes, and two of those rated Grade 1, all accomplished over a wide variety of surfaces?

Out of luck, that's how, when it comes to an Eclipse Award for 2007. Any chance Nashoba's Key would contend for the Eclipse for turf mare died somewhere on the far turn of the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Monmouth Park when it became apparent that she and her young companion, Joe Talamo, were hopelessly mired inside horses, and that both Lahudood and Honey Ryder were getting clear runs at the leaders. Nashoba's Key ended up fourth, beaten two lengths by Lahudood.

Then, about two hours later, any chance that Nashoba's Key might back into the Eclipse Award for older filly or mare evaporated when Ginger Punch beat Hystericalady by a neck in the BC Distaff. Along with Nashoba's Key, they were the prime championship contenders, and both of them came through admirably, under tough conditions.

As a result, when the 2007 Eclipse Award balloting has ended on Jan. 2, 2008, Nashoba's Key will find herself in a high rent twilight zone, occupied by such noble creatures as Exceller, Sangue, Affluent, Congaree, and Bold 'n Determined. These were all champions without portfolio, the ultimate 'tweeners. They were brilliant at what they did, and most of them did more than one thing.

In 1978, Exceller won the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Hollywood Gold Cup on the main track, along with four Grade 1 races on the grass. No trophy. In 1980, 3-year-old Bold 'n Determined ran 12 times, won stakes from six furlongs to 1 1/2 miles, defeated her elders in the Spinster, and beat Derby winner Genuine Risk on the square in the Maskette while giving her four pounds. Guess who won the title?

At the rate she's going, Nashoba's Key could end up with a record that resembles the one compiled by the Irish mare Sangue at ages 4 and 5. From early 1982 through the end of 1983, Sangue bounced back and forth between main track and turf to win such major events as the Vanity, Beverly Hills, Santa Maria, Yellow Ribbon, Golden Harvest, Ramona, Chula Vista, and Yerba Buena. This clearly confused Eclipse Award voters, who seem to prefer their champions to specialize.

"She was a great mare," said her trainer, Henry Moreno. "The only thing Sangue couldn't do was beat Tizna."

Moreno knows an outstanding mare when he gets one. In addition to Sangue, he handled Bastonera, Lite Light, Lucky Spell, and Timely Assertion, as well as Tizna, the granddam of Tiznow and two-time winner of the Santa Margarita.

One of Sangue's lesser prizes came at the end of the 1982 Hollywood Park fall meet in a division of the Dahlia Handicap, at 1 1/16 miles on the grass. Now graced with a Grade 2 rating, the Dahlia will be run again on Sunday, and Nashoba's Key has been entered, although trainer Carla Gaines is hinting she may wait three weeks and run in the San Gorgonio Handicap at Santa Anita instead.

"She came out of the Breeders' Cup great, and she's been acting like she wants to run," Gaines said, but added on Friday, "I'm just not sure yet if I want to."

Fans of Nashoba's Key are greedy. They want to see their heroine in action, and back on a winning track. Gaines, though, might be erring on the side of prudence to wait just a bit longer with her star, putting more distance between the Breeders' Cup and her return.

The effects of competing over those compromised Monmouth surfaces - both the muddy main track and deep turf - are difficult to measure. The horses who have run back after competing on the Oct. 27 Breeders' Cup program offer a mixed message.

Precious Kitten, who was eliminated in the Filly and Mare Turf by the bolting Simply Perfect, returned to win the Matriarch. Benny the Bull, a distant fourth in the Sprint, wheeled back a month later to take the De Francis Dash while Z Humor, fourth in the Juvenile, got a share of the Delta Jackpot last week in a dead heat. On the other side of the page, Greg's Gold, Nobiz Like Shobiz, Silent Name, Red Rocks, Dylan Thomas, Excellent Art, Tough Tiz's Sis, Set Play, Argentina, Overextended, Host, and Talent Search went from losses in various Breeders' Cup races to losses in lesser company their next time out.

So whether or not a Monmouth effect lingers is hard to measure, but there's enough circumstantial evidence to give Gaines the benefit of the doubt. The game deserves nothing less than the best version of Nashoba's Key.