12/10/2001 12:00AM

Put brain in gear before casting an Eclipse ballot


NEW YORK - On Jan. 4, voting for the 2001 Eclipse Awards ends. The results from the three voting blocs - writers and editors from Daily Racing Form, members of the National Turf Writers Association, and racing secretaries and Equibase chartcallers representing the National Thoroughbred Racing Association - will be tabulated. Finalists in each division will be announced, winners will be honored Feb. 18, and a system that does not exactly represent the best of democracy will be continued for another year.

Some view the three-bloc system as the biggest problem in Eclipse Award voting. A horse who carries at least two of the three blocs wins a championship. Trouble is, the turf writers have many more voters than the other two blocs. In a close division, a horse may have the most total votes but lose the championship.

Shades of the Electoral College!

But the three bloc system is necessary for check and balance. It would be a greater evil either to take away votes from members of one voting bloc who have voted for years, or to pad the number of voters in another blocs just to make the number of voters within each bloc equal.

Others say that the Eclipse Award voting is flawed because the fans are not involved. Without "fans," which is just a sanitized term for "bettors," there would be no need to even have Eclipse Awards. Without them, racing would be polo, and no one cares who was named last year's champion polo team. And a case could be made that the fans/bettors would do a better job selecting champions since they don't have the allegiances, debts, and axes to grind that some members of the three voting blocs do. Either consciously or subconsciously, these biases tend to manifest themselves on a lot of ballots. Moreover, many bettors know more than a lot of Eclipse Award voters.

But a big stumbling block is the potential for ballot box stuffing, which is an issue almost every year when fans vote for the starters in the baseball All-Star Game.

One of the biggest problems with Eclipse Award voting, as I see it, is that there are no guidelines for voters. Eclipse Award voters can vote for any horse they please. That may look nice on paper, but every year, there are a number of Eclipse Award votes for horses that are totally indefensible.

Look at what happened in the voting for the 2000 Eclipse Awards. One voter actually thought, somehow, that Kalanisi was a better choice for Horse of the Year than Breeders' Cup Classic winner Tiznow. At least that Horse of the Year vote, as wacky as it was, was for a Breeders' Cup Turf winner. In the voting for champion turf horse of 2000, someone actually voted for Dansili. Now, Dansili did have some bad luck when third in the Breeders' Cup Mile. Still, I would like to see whoever cast that vote publicly explain why Dansili should be a champion in the United States when, in his only start in the United States, he lost!

Indefensible votes like this occur every year in Eclipse Award voting. I'm certain that some yahoo out there will vote for Monarchos this year for champion 3-year-old because he won the Kentucky Derby. This voter will be completely ignorant of the fact that Point Given's Derby performance was an aberration, and that Point Given came back to crush Monarchos in both the Preakness and Belmont. Votes like this undermine the credibility of the process.

So does splitting a vote between two candidates or abstaining from voting in some divisions. That's just a cowardly waste of a vote.

In politics, candidates for major office have to go through a primary election process. The good news is, in racing, we already have a primary system in place. They are called major stakes races, and they should be the basis for guidelines for Eclipse Award voting, if not officially, then at least firmly in the mind of every Eclipse Award voter.

Yes, the North American graded stakes system is not perfect. Occasionally, stakes are graded either too high or too low. Things can and should be done to make the grading of stakes races more reflective of reality. But graded stakes are the basis on which we determine who gets in the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup. If the graded stakes system is important enough to do that, then it is important enough to apply to the process of weeding out legitimate Eclipse Award candidates. A horse like Balto Star, who won two Grade 2 races this year and was beaten in his five other stakes starts, does not merit inclusion as a legitimate candidate for champion 3-year-old along with Point Given, who won five Grade 1 races.

That may seem obvious, but not much is in the minds of some Eclipse Award voters.