11/17/2003 1:00AM

Three cheers for common sense


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Now that the three groups associated with the Eclipse Awards have streamlined the voting process, perhaps there's hope that more industry reforms will follow. After all, it took only 30 years to scrap the absurd bloc voting system. Imagine how quickly such knotty problems as medication, licensing, and access to the Pimlico backstretch can be solved.

High marks go to the peacemakers at the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the National Turf Writers Association, and Daily Racing Form for their Eclipse compromise. Believe this - it wasn't easy.

The system was entrenched, a product of the original Eclipse Awards compromise of 1971, in which turf writers, track operators, and the game's leading trade publication created a viable championship structure out of chaos. Remember the 1970 Horse of the Year? It was Fort Marcy. It was Personality. It was ridiculous.

To their credit, the reformers fixed only what was broken. They retained the framework of the Eclipse electorate, comprised of voters from the three sponsoring groups, while simplifying the way the votes are tallied. Finally, one vote is worth one vote.

Henceforth, the horse who receives the most votes in a particular category will be acclaimed the champion. Makes perfect sense, doesn't it? But it wasn't that way before. Between 1971 and 2002, separate votes were cast within each of the three sponsoring groups. To be champion, a candidate had to win the vote in two of those three groups.

This might have worked better had the three groups maintained equal numbers. They did not. As a result, on several occasions through the years, a candidate would received a plurality of the total vote, yet lose the title through the injustices of bloc voting.

(If this sounds familiar, it should. Were it not for an archaic, winner-take-all bloc vote system called the Electoral College, Sean Hannity would be spending most of his time ranting about Vice President Lieberman.)

Unfortunately, there is no way to offer reparations to those who finished first in past Eclipse Award voting, but lost the title to the inequities of bloc tallies.

For instance, Bob and Beverly Lewis, for all they have contributed to the sport, have yet to win the Eclipse Award for outstanding owner, unless you count 1997, when they outpolled Carolyn Hine in the cumulative total but lost the trophy to the bloc system.

W.T. Young has had a whole passel of champions - tough to feel sorry for him - but the one that should not have gotten away was Grand Canyon, who outpolled Rhythm in the category for best 2-year-old colt of 1989. Rhythm came in the side door, winning two of the three blocs while losing the overall tally.

The worst of all scenarios occurred in 1990 when a lovely, headstrong mare named Petite Ile ran amok on the turf for trainer Eddie Gregson. She defeated males twice. She defeated defending female turf champ Brown Bess twice. Then, when it came time for the 249 Eclipse Award voters to weigh in, they gave Petite Ile a conclusive plurality of 86 to 67 over her nearest rival, Laugh and Be Merry.

So who got the statue? You guessed it, and it wasn't funny.

More than a dozen years later, the leak has been fixed. Better still, the reformers resisted the temptation for a total makeover that could have rendered Eclipse voting as confusing as the system used for Europe's Cartier Awards, which attempts to incorporate public opinion and requires a degree in advanced mathematics to compute.

One issue remains: the make-up of the Eclipse Award electorate. Each of the three organizations retains autonomy over its own slate of voters, and no group is particularly willing to let the other guys dictate qualifications.

As it stands, racing fans must take on faith that Eclipse Awards ballots are entrusted to only the most highly qualified people, those who possess considerable experience in the study of Thoroughbred racing and are blessed with impeccable integrity, able to withstand the temptations of regional distortion, emotional impulse, and petty prejudice. Hey, it can happen.

Still, there should be a way to test for such attributes. As a public service, your correspondent is offering this scientifically crafted quiz designed as quick, Rorschach-style peek into the mind of a potential Eclipse Award voter. Try it yourself!

1. If a horse wins a Breeders' Cup race, he/she should be champion of his/her division. True or false?

2. It is okay for a horse (2-year-olds excepted) with fewer than five starts in a season to be considered for a championship. Yes or no?

3. A European horse with only one appearance in North America should not be considered for an Eclipse Award. Oui or non?

4. The purse standings for trainer and jockey are the most significant factor in determining a champion. Bobby or Jerry?

5. Campaigns for Eclipse Awards should be encouraged, with gifts and gratuities quietly sent to columnists and reporters to curry favorable press. True, so true.

Of course, there are no right answers. Opinions are what make the Eclipse Award voting so darn much fun, especially now that those votes will be properly counted.