11/09/2001 12:00AM

One Eclipse, so many fillies

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NEW YORK - So whose name deserves to be pulled from the envelope the night of Feb. 18 when the champion 3-year-old filly of 2001 is announced?

Rarely if ever have there been so many legitimate contenders for a divisional championship. Usually when an award is up for grabs it's because of a lack of quality or consistency, but this was a strong and deep division and the challenge is choosing among so many worthy candidates.

There was so much talent that even whittling the field down to four finalists means eliminating two fillies who early in the year looked like the division's best. Golden Ballet beat Flute fair and square in the Santa Anita Oaks and had as much ability as anyone, but was retired without proving enough to merit title consideration. Fleet Renee won two Grade 1's, the Ashland and Mother Goose, but lost the Oaks to Flute and the Gazelle to Exogenous and was scratched from the Breeders' Cup Distaff.

The division was so contentious that Fleet Renee and Golden Ballet are unlikely to be among the three finalists for the award. That trio will come from the four candidates whose cases are presented in alphabetical order below:

Exogenous: Her final two starts were Grade 1 victories in two of the year's fastest races. In the Gazelle Sept. 8, she roared from off the pace to beat Two Item Limit and Fleet Renee by 3 1/2 lengths while running just a tick slower than Lido Palace's Woodward later on the card. Four weeks later, she beat 3-year-old division leader Flute and likely older filly and mare champion Spain in the Beldame, edging clear despite lugging in badly through the stretch.

There is no question that for that month, she was the best 3-year-old filly anywhere. The problem is that she was beaten soundly in three major races before that, a distant second to Flute in the Alabama, a distant second to Tweedside in the CCA Oaks, and a distant third to Fleet Renee in the Mother Goose.

Does her month of brilliance add up to a championship season?

Flute: She won the two biggest races of the year in her division, the Kentucky Oaks and the Alabama. In the Oaks, she scored by nearly three lengths in just her fourth career start, and in the Alabama, she won by 4 3/4 lengths over Exogenous. At that point, she was odds-on for the divisional title.

Then came the Beldame, where she finished second to Exogenous after racing in tight quarters on the inside but not on an unusually dead rail, and the Breeders' Cup Distaff, where she was stuck on a deader rail early but showed little at any point. So her season ended with defeats to two of her competitors for the title.

Is winning the Oaks and Alabama enough to offset two year-end defeats?

Unbridled Elaine: Sporting stakes victories this year in only the Monmouth and Iowa Oaks before Oct. 27, Unbridled Elaine was an unlikely championship contender until her Breeders' Cup Distaff victory. Plenty of voters believe that a single Cup victory is worth two or three Grade 1's during the regular season, and will resolve the tough problem by penciling in the winner of the so-called World Thoroughbred Championship race.

It's not a completely indefensible decision. Unbridled Elaine had a tough trip in the Distaff and rallied strongly to catch Spain at the wire. The problem is that she did it in a race where Exogenous and Fleet Renee were scratched and Flute showed up in name only. Is a Cup victory enough to make up for an otherwise spotty resume?

Xtra Heat: Here's where things get really interesting. One way to solve the Flute/Exogenous riddle is to vote for the Distaff winner. Another is to step outside normal championship guidelines and reward an unusual filly who was part of the division in age and and gender only.

Xtra Heat did not run in the Santa Anita Oaks, Kentucky Oaks, Black-Eyed Susan, Acorn, Mother Goose, CCA Oaks, Alabama, Gazelle, Beldame, Spinster, or Distaff. Her only Grade 1 appearances were the Test, which she lost; the Breeders' Cup Sprint, which she lost; and the Prioress, which she won narrowly, but is a race whose Grade 1 status is highly suspect. Still, she won 9 of 12 starts overall, with three seconds, and captured the admiration of anyone who watched her. No horse of any age or sex could beat her for half a mile this year, and she consistently hung in courageously after setting blistering early fractions.

The question here is whether you want to give a championship other than the sprinting award to a filly who never ran beyond seven furlongs. My answer is probably not, and I'm leaning towards Exogenous. But Xtra Heat's remarkable campaign does raise anew the question of why there isn't a separate Eclipse award for filly and mare sprinters (which she would win unanimously) since there is one for grass fillies and mares.

There are a lot more sprints than grass routes for fillies in American racing, and it doesn't seem right that a Banks Hill should get an Eclipse Award for winning a single grass race while Xtra Heat's campaign goes uncrowned.