12/29/2004 12:00AM

This one's too close to call

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The votes are in, signed, sealed, and delivered to the Louisville auditors who, with green eye shades, gartered sleeves, and brows furrowed in concentration, are counting and recounting the Eclipse Award votes for 2004.

Can you stand the suspense? Didn't think so.

Never in the history of the Eclipse Awards has a vote been so important. No, wait. That was the general election last November. How about this: Never in the recent history of the Eclipse Awards has the vote for Horse of the Year been so difficult.

Not since 1984, anyway. That was the year John Henry and Slew o' Gold divided the racing nation down the middle, pitting cold, hard East Coast tradition against warm and fuzzy West Coast sentiment. They never met on the track.

Warm and fuzzy came out on top, although it helped to have a hero like John Henry, who could take his best game to Chicago, New Jersey, and New York without missing a beat. Slew o' Gold owned New York, but his brittle feet failed him in a noble Breeders' Cup effort at Hollywood Park. In the end, either John Henry or Slew o' Gold would have made an honorable Horse of the Year.

The same can be said this time around, plugging in the names of Ghostzapper and Smarty Jones. Because the two horses never met, the 329 Eclipse Award voters had to rely on their personal prejudices, pet theories, and preconceived notions to make their choice.

The winners will not be announced until Monday, Jan. 24, at the Eclipse Awards dinner in Los Angeles. In the meantime, as a public service gesture, this reporter reached out to a pair of brand new Eclipse Award voters in an attempt to gather exit poll data and establish an election trend.

At age 41, Robert Yates has been covering Thoroughbred racing for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette since 1992. Oaklawn Park is his beat, which means that Yates had a seat in the front pew last spring for the emergence of Smarty Jones as a cultural phenomenon. Yates received his first ballot as a newly elected member of the National Turf Writers Association.

"I went with Smarty," Yates said, fully aware that his vote would be made public in the turf writers' newsletter. "I'd probably get booted out of the state of Arkansas if I didn't. But I'd like to think that had nothing to do with how I voted."

Yates did not shy away from the impact Smarty Jones had on the general sports public. To do so, in his opinion, would be to ignore the reality of the Smarty Jones saga.

"Honestly, I don't think he's going to win," Yates said. "From a voting perspective, what he did seems to have happened so long ago. And Ghostzapper got a lot of support in the aftermath of the Breeders' Cup. Kind of like a post-convention bounce.

"Essentially, one captured the second half of the season and one captured the first half," he said. "So how can you say that one horse is better than the other when they haven't raced against each other? Do you use Beyer figures? Do you use your imagination about who would win a match race? Or do you look at who had the biggest impact on horse racing? Is that part of the Horse of the Year equation?

"For me, it was," Yates said. "I've never seen anything like what Smarty did with mainstream fans, from 15-year-old kids to 35-year-old soccer moms. I guess it's a little like the BCS. Poor Auburn's getting left out. So will either Smarty or Ghostzapper."

Gary McMillen, another new voting member of the National Turf Writers Association, is a 62-year-old freelancer from New Orleans who has been writing about the sport for 30 years. He is also assistant director of the LSU department of Human Resource Management, which gives him an interesting perspective on the rich stew of people and horses in the racing world.

"I see myself as a pretty insignificant cog in the wheel," McMillen said. "To be asked to participate in the vote is something I thought was a privilege and a responsibility to be taken seriously."

McMillen's choice for Horse of the Year was agonizing. The rookie was tested right out of the box.

"There were scratch-outs on my ballot; that's how difficult it was," McMillen said. "I felt in my heart that Smarty Jones did not have the comfort of calling his shots. Once they won the Preakness, they had no choice as to where they had to go. It was different for Ghostzapper. Things were laid out a little better for him. So that made it a tough decision.

"In the end, I voted for Ghostzapper," McMillen said. "For me, it was just the raw power of his wins. You couldn't run from it. You could hardly see him being second doing anything, even though you felt sympathy for what Smarty Jones had accomplished. But Ghostzapper, you couldn't turn your back on the power of his performances."

So there you have it, a conclusive, 50-50 split with absolutely no margin of error. And we all know how accurate exit polls can be. Still, don't be surprised if the final tally announced Jan. 24 is every bit as close.