11/08/2008 12:00AM

Several Eclipse categories still open for debate


NEW YORK - A year ago, all 12 equine Eclipse Awards could have been safely sent out for engraving the morning after the Breeders' Cup. This year, only seven of the 12 seem secure, and the other five are still open to plenty of argument.

Five of them should be unanimous: Stardom Bound (2-year-old filly), Big Brown (3-year-old), Curlin (older male), Zenyatta (older female), and Good Night Shirt (steeplechaser). Two others could be argued about briefly but will probably end up with lopsided victories: Breeders' Cup-winning Midshipman over Cup-skipping Vineyard Haven for champion 2-year-old, and three-time Grade 1 winner Forever Together over one-race sensation Goldikova for turf female.

The other five - sprinter, filly sprinter, 3-year-old filly, male turf horse, and Horse of the Year - could all give you a headache.

Sprinter: Midnight Lute defended his BC Sprint title with a tremendous performance, but his 2008 resume consists of just two starts, the Sprint victory and a 10th-place finish in the Pat O'Brien. The alternative is Benny the Bull, who was 4 for 4 before being injured and retired in August, winning the Group 1 Golden Shaheen in Dubai and the Grade 2 True North and Smile here.

Filly sprinter: This title was introduced last year along with the BC Filly and Mare Sprint, but the race being conducted on a synthetic surface this year diminished its decisiveness. Ventura was a decisive winner, but made 5 of her 7 starts on turf and was clearly aided by the Pro-Ride footing, while Indian Blessing and Intangaroo prefer dirt and had stronger overall campaigns. Ventura won the showdown, Indian Blessing showed the most pure talent, and Intangaroo had the best resume with three Grade 1's. I'm stumped.

3-year-old filly: It's Proud Spell vs. Music Note, with a few stray votes for Goldikova and Indian Blessing. Proud Spell won the Kentucky Oaks and Alabama, while Music Note won the Mother Goose, CCA Oaks, and Gazelle, and they split their two heads-up decisions. Music Note was a decent third in the BC Ladies' Classic and will get points just for showing up, but the image of Proud Spell nosing her out in the Alabama lingers strongly.

Turf male: Good luck. Conduit ran the race of the year winning the BC Turf, but that was his lone American appearance and he wasn't as dominant abroad as previous Europeans who won this award off a single U.S. victory in the Turf. Grand Couturier (Sword Dancer, Joe Hirsch Turf Classic) and Einstein (Gulfstream Park Turf, Woodford Reserve Turf Classic) both won two American Grade 1's, but the former was up the track in the Turf and the latter hasn't won since May. Kip Deville won the Maker's Mark and was second (beating all the males) to Goldikova in the Mile.

Horse of the Year: It's not as if there's a bad choice here between Curlin and Zenyatta, and there's no need to denigrate either horse's campaign in order to prefer one to the other. Some look at it as a simple matter of Zenyatta having a 7-for-7 campaign, while Curlin was 5 for 7, but Curlin's only defeats came in his non-dirt starts, once on turf and once on synthetic. More important, his body of work - including Grade 1 or Group 1 victories in the Dubai World Cup, Stephen Foster, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup - adds up to more than seven victories in races restricted to fillies or mares. We wouldn't even be having the discussion if Curlin had won the Classic, so in a sense it boils down to whether you want to punish him for participating in a race his handlers ran in with severe reservations.

Zenyatta would be only the fourth female to win Horse of the Year since the Eclipses were first awarded in 1973, but she doesn't meet the circumstances that propelled her three predecessors to that honor. In 1983, All Along won four Grade 1 races against males in six weeks. In 1986, Lady's Secret not only waged an historic campaign, winning an astounding nine Grade 1 races (to Zenyatta's four), but also raced against top males four different times, including a victory in the Whitney. Further, her chief rival for that honor, Turkoman, lost 4 of his last 5 starts that year. Azeri in 2002 was simply the best choice in an odd year where the primary alternative was War Emblem, who ended his campaign with poor efforts in the Pacific and BC Classics.

Curlin and Zenyatta probably both will end up in the Hall of Fame and neither would be an unworthy Horse of the Year honoree, but I give the edge to Curlin. As for the other four disputed divisions, I'm leaning toward Proud Spell but might need most of the next two months to figure out the two sprinters and the male grass horse.