06/23/2006 12:00AM

Overdue recognition for specialists


NEW YORK - The Eclipse Award categories for racing's equine champions have not changed since 1979, when the grass award was first split to honor both a male and female turf champion. Is it time to consider adding some new divisions to acknowledge and reflect changes in the game since the days of Affirmed and Spectacular Bid?

A growing number of racing officials around the country thinks so. Rogers Beasley, the widely respected director of racing at Keeneland, recently polled 30 racing secretaries around the country about possible new titles. He said that 28 of them supported creating three new Eclipse Award divisions and that most think there are as many as three others that might become Eclipse-worthy.

There was virtual unanimity on recognizing a champion filly sprinter and champion 3-year-old male and female grass horses, with strong interest in perhaps eventually developing additional titles for dirt and grass milers and turf sprinters.

The easiest of these to endorse is a filly sprinter title, an indefensible omission from the current trophy list. There is a fillies-only award for every other flat-racing division, with fillies honored alongside males among the 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, 4-and-ups, and grass runners. There is no good reason sprinters should not be treated similarly, and it is difficult to imagine any real opposition to this overdue idea.

Honoring 3-year-old grass runners is more a case of recognizing changes to the game than correcting a longstanding error. There are now 17 graded races for grass 3-year-olds, including four Grade 1's for each gender, a list that is likely to grow as rich new races, such as those at Colonial Downs, attain graded status. Proponents of new awards for grass 3-year-olds say that this racing has been transformed from an afterthought for failed dirt horses into a legitimate championship division.

The one drawback to this idea would be if having separate awards for grass 3-year-olds in any way discouraged the 3-year-olds from taking on their elders in the major fall grass races. The sport needs top grass 3-year-olds, such as Kitten's Joy and English Channel in recent years, running in those races instead of trying to wrap up a title in a competing restricted race.

Some may also argue that change is unnecessary, because there is nothing to prevent a 3-year-old grass specialist from being named the overall champion 3-year-old or the overall champion grass horse. In practice, however, this happens so rarely as to be moot. Kitten's Joy was an exception when he won the grass title as a 3-year-old in 2004; with a new division, he would instead have been the champion 3-year-old grass horse, and Better Talk Now probably would have won what would have to be redefined as champion older grass male.

The other categories being discussed could be either problematic or premature, but they merit consideration. For milers, it does seem counterintuitive that success at that distance is a cornerstone of breeding theory and that one of the Breeders' Cup races is the Mile, yet there is no Eclipse Award for this internationally popular division. But would this be a single award or would you have one for dirt and one for grass? Also, with relatively few Grade 1 races at a mile, would races at 7 1/2 furlongs or 1 1/16 miles "count" in picking a champion?

Honoring turf sprinters is even more troublesome, given the lack of any meaningful program of grass races under a mile. It would be odd to crown a champion for a division that does not have a Grade 1 race. While interest in such racing is growing, it is probably wiser to wait and see if this kind of racing really develops in the years ahead or remains a niche oddity.

Both existing and new championship categories can only benefit from more clearly organized paths to the divisional titles through better-structured series of races. Industry leaders have been talking about this for years as both a promotional and sporting necessity, but little has been done. Some organizers have wrongly focused on trying to automate championships by developing abstruse point systems for such series, but the point instead should be to define circuits of existing races to draw full and competitive fields of Eclipse aspirants.

No one wants to see racing's championships devalued by doubling or tripling the number of precious Eclipse Awards handed out each year, and not every specialization is worthy of the game's highest honor; we don't need an award for champion 2-year-old filly grass sprinter. After 27 years, however, it is more than fair to ask whether a little tinkering is in order. Honoring a filly sprinter is long overdue, the time may have come to recognize 3-year-old grass horses, and the other possibilities are at least provocative points of conversation toward the common goal of recognizing the many forms of excellence in our racehorses.