12/16/2005 12:00AM

Precious few awards up in the air


NEW YORK - Aqueduct closes for nine days starting Monday, coincidentally reopening the same day Eclipse Award ballots are due. That sounds like just about enough time to figure out the few remaining questions over who should be named champions of their divisions for 2005.

Seven of the 10 equine championships are so clear-cut that even turf writers and racing secretaries probably can't help getting them right: Stevie Wonderboy (2-year-old), Folklore (2-year-old filly), Afleet Alex (3-year-old), Saint Liam (older male), Ashado (older filly), Intercontinental (turf female), and McDynamo (steeplechaser). That leaves three problematic, or at least debatable, categories: 3-year-old filly, turf male, and sprinter.

Everyone is scratching his head over a 3-year-old filly division where no one had a sustained and consistent championship season. Marley Vale was the best of the class by season's end, but never ran in a Grade 1 race or faced the division's best. Splendid Blended was the lone Grade 1 winner against elders, but her Vanity was her single triumph in a two-race campaign.

The 3-year-old division's 10 Grade 1 dirt stakes were won by nine different fillies, leaving the lone dual Grade 1 winner as the most logical choice: Smuggler, who was 3 for 4 and won both the Mother Goose and the Coaching Club American Oaks. Also, she beat Summerly in both those races, and Summerly is probably the next most-accomplished candidate off her victories in the Kentucky Oaks and two graded stakes at the Fair Grounds.

The past performances distributed to Eclipse voters include 18 candidates in the turf male division, by far the largest roster of potential champions. Better Talk Now and Sweet Return were the only two-time American Grade 1 winners, but had otherwise disappointing campaigns.

It probably boils down to a bake-off among Artie Schiller, Leroidesanimaux, and Shirocco. None is an entirely satisfactory choice. Though Shirocco won the Breeders' Cup Turf with authority, it is hard to coronate him off a single American appearance and a 1-for-3 campaign. While other Europeans have won this award with a Breeders' Cup Turf victory in their only Stateside start, champions such as Daylami and Fantastic Light also won major European races and thus were much more than one-race wonders.

That leaves the first two finishers from the Breeders' Cup Mile, and I am leaning toward overturning the finish of that race. While the racetrack is the best place to settle these things, Leroidesanimaux clearly was compromised by foot problems that day and still turned in an extraordinarily brave effort in defeat. Leroidesanimaux's three starts before the Mile were the quickest and most electrifying grass performances of the year, whereas before the Mile, Artie Schiller simply came up a tad short too often to be a champion.

The toughest decision is probably an irrelevant one: Lost in the Fog will be the champion sprinter, and no grave injustice will be committed when that happens. While he was a bet-against in the Breeders' Cup Sprint because of his short price and lack of experience against top-class company, but there is no denying he's a dandy colt who won nine stakes races, five of them graded, at eight different tracks.

Still, he did fail the only time he met championship-caliber company, and it's somewhat counterintuitive to honor such a horse as the best of his division. The problem is finding a superior alternative. If Taste of Paradise had gotten a little luckier and won the Breeders' Cup Sprint instead of finishing a troubled second, you could make a strong case for him off a Vosburgh-Sprint double. As for Sprint winner Silver Train, winning only the Jerome and the Sprint just doesn't equal Lost in the Fog's resume.

A somewhat esoteric case might be made for the late Saratoga County, who won all three of his starts early in the year: the Mr. Prospector, the General George and the Dubai Golden Shaheen. Even so, it's a little bit of a stretch, and in any case Lost in the Fog is 1-20.

Highlight reel has overlooked image

Speaking of year-end awards, the "NTRA Moment of the Year," selected via fan voting at the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's website, lists 12 nominees but manages to omit the single best performance by a racehorse in this country in 2005. Of course Afleet Alex's Preakness is a nominee and an almost certain winner for its widely-seen drama, but it was not the race of the year.

Ghostzapper's Metropolitan Handicap was. A one-turn mile may be the toughest spot for a horse to return from a long absence, but Ghostzapper was brilliant in his first start since winning the 2004 Classic seven months earlier, blowing away the field with a sudden move entering the turn and then opening up with a burst that prompted chills and left veteran racetrackers talking about him in relation to the best horses they had ever seen. It was a glimpse of greatness and the most sublime moment of the year.