01/01/2003 1:00AM

Timid vote for Toccet, War Emblem

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PHILADELPHIA - After I finished filling out the no-brainer categories on my Eclipse Award ballot, I looked long and hard at the puzzling categories of 2-year-old champion and Horse of the Year.

The consensus in those categories likely will be Vindication and Azeri, respectively. While I can respect the arguments in their favor, there were other issues to consider.

Could either Vindication or Azeri have been much more dominant? Well, no. Could Vindication have raced more often and Azeri against better competition? Well, yes.

Vindication won all four of his starts. He was involved in no photographs. He won two stakes, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile where all the top 2-year-olds were in the starting gate. His Beyer Speed Figures got better in each start. In any other year, Vindication would be a no brainer.

This was not any other year. Toccet won four stakes at four different tracks. He won in New York twice and California once. He won two Grade 1's, a Grade 2, and a Grade 3. He kept racing in an era when racing has become almost an afterthought.

Toccet's problem is simple. He was ninth in the Breeders' Cup, 16 lengths behind Vindication. Certainly, breaking from post 13 inhibited his chances, but such a loss is hard for the horse to overcome, even though he proved in his three subsequent wins that the failure was a fluke.

Two-year-olds don't ship from the East to Hollywood Park to compete in December. It just doesn't happen anymore. Toccet not only did it, but he won the Hollywood Juvenile and earned his second consecutive triple-digit Beyer.

So how does one reconcile the obvious brilliance of Vindication with the laudable campaign of Toccet? I am not sure it's possible. The easy answer is to vote for Vindication. That's hardly an unreasonable stance.

I voted for Toccet. I confess to having hung out with the colt's owner, Dan Borislow, a few times and having been amazed at how much money one man can put through the mutuel windows. I further confess that my objectivity could be questioned.

Bottom line, I decided that if you can't reward someone for doing something we've all been wanting them to do (actually race their horses), what can we reward them for?

I was completely clueless about Azeri in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. My conclusion was that she had been winning in bad fields all year and, thus, would fold when challenged in a terrific field. Wrong, way wrong.

The lesson there should have been obvious. Azeri was California speed. Imperial Gesture was New York speed. The difference was clear two jumps out of the gate. Azeri crushed what appeared to be the day's most competitive field.

Azeri was consistently brilliant in a year of inconsistency. She was every bit as good in October as she was in January, maybe better.

Here's the problem. Yes, she won five Grade 1 stakes and two Grade 2 stakes. But how do we really know she was the best horse when she never ran against the best horses?

Here's the other problem. If you don't vote for Azeri, what horse do you vote for? I thought there was only one other choice. And that choice had major problems.

In a normal year, with no obvious male standout, a colt that won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Haskell Invitational, and the Illinois Derby, while earning five Beyers between 109 and 114, would be an obvious Horse of the Year.

The problem with War Emblem, of course, is all the other races. He won five and lost - really lost - five. He was fifth once, sixth twice, and eighth twice. In his losses, he was beaten by a combined 44 lengths. That is not really Horse of the Year material.

If War Emblem had just one courageous loss (like Charismatic in the Belmont in 1999), he would probably be a cinch. But he was all or nothing at all.

So, what to do?

I voted for War Emblem. Don't ask me why. I really don't know.