12/21/2002 12:00AM

Picking champions, Eclipse-style


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There's nothing else to do on a rainy day but curl up with the cat and consider the freshly arrived Eclipse Award ballot. Here goes nothing.

The honor of voting for North American champions is bestowed upon a chosen 303. At least, that is the number of ballots dispatched by the National Thoroughbred Racing Associations. And like a general election in Iraq, turnout is usually very high.

Racing fans may feel disenfranchised, but at least they should be familiar with the process. After all, it is the champions - horse and human - who propel the history of the sport. Their patterns of performance are rewarded with a place in racing lore, forever defining what it means to be the best. Their names become part of the language, fueling endless references and supplying grist for Internet chatroom debates.

So even if they don't have a vote, racing fans do have a vested interest in how their champions are chosen. With that in mind, everyone needs to be aware of the following:

* A horse can receive a plurality of the Eclipse Awards cast in a particular division and still not be named champion.

* Eclipse Award voting can be influenced by misleading or even incorrect statistical information.

* The time line of the entire Eclipse Award process is ruled not by a fair evaluation of a 12-month season, but by the pressure to purchase discount airline tickets, the availability of hotel rooms, and the hectic schedule of some faceless trophy engraver.

The Eclipse Awards use their own version of the electoral college, and we all know what happened the last time the electoral college made news. G.W. Bush went to the White House and Al Gore ended up on "Saturday Night Live."

There are three voting blocs making up those 303 Eclipse Award ballots. The National Turf Writers Association receives 161 votes. There are 52 Daily Racing Form writers and editors making up a second group. Then there are the 57 member tracks in the NTRA, with those ballots usually going to a racing secretary, plus 33 Equibase field personnel making up a third bloc.

To win the Eclipse, a horse must win two of the three groups, and that works out fine where there is a clear-cut leader, or perhaps only two serious candidates.

But when the division is wide open, there is a very real mathematical probability that a horse could squeak by in two of three groups and still have fewer votes than another candidate. It has happened several times before, and could easily happen this year in a category such as champion older male, with Evening Attire, Left Bank, Street Cry, and Volponi all in the mix for the title.

Annual attempts to reform the process have failed because the NTRA is reluctant to give up the bloc voting system. Its leaders fear that their influence will be drowned by the groups with larger voting rolls. Similar protests have been heard by smaller sects in Afghanistan as that country tries to emerge from Taliban control.

Perhaps it is wishful thinking that racing leaders would behave otherwise. But no. It will take a voting hash of nationally embarrassing proportions to budge them at all.

On the second point, we turn to the statistical tables included in the Eclipse Award information package provided by the NTRA, Daily Racing Form, and Equibase. The leaders among horses, trainers, owners, and jockeys are listed, breaking categories down into wins, stakes, and money, as of the racing through Dec. 1, 2002.

Everything is fine, until you realize that there are different kinds of dollars represented on the money lists, and there are no footnotes or disclaimers to point out the discrepancies. As a result, unquestioning voters will think that the leading money-winning owner of 2002, at least through Dec. 1, was the Stronach Stable of Frank Stronach with $8.1 million.

They would be wrong. Stronach races extensively in Canada and does very well. Voters should know, however, that Stronach's horses won 3.6 million of what our Canadian brethren also call dollars, only their dollars are worth only about 64 of our American cents.

Sharper guys than me did the math back in the head office. The result was enlightening. With the proper currency conversion to American dollars, the Stronach Stable would be no higher than fourth place on the list published in the Eclipse package, behind The Thoroughbred Corp., Richard Englander, and Michael Gill.

Finally, there is a mindless rush to tally the Eclipse Award votes each year, simply because the Eclipse Awards Dinner is traditionally held in late January, apparently because that's the only time a two-bit game like horse racing can rent a proper room.

So the tail wags the hound, and everything is jammed backwards. Category finalists need to be informed in early January to make their travel plans. The trophies take time to engrave. The end result is an 11-month season, with December racing in California routinely ignored.

That is why Toccet could have won the Hollywood Futurity by the length of the stretch, and the result would have been hopelessly lost on the Eclipse Award process, like a tear hitting the pavement in a driving California rain.