12/10/2001 12:00AM

Top two candidates each have flaws


That's the choice facing Eclipse Award voters as they pick the Horse of the Year for 2001. In some ways it is a dispiriting choice. Although Point Given captured two-thirds of the Triple Crown and Tiznow beat the world's best horses in the Breeders' Cup Classic, injuries significantly abridged both of their campaigns. But not a single other American horse displayed excellence over an entire season to merit consideration for the sport's top honor.

Point Given would have been given the title by acclaim except for the one flop of his career: the Kentucky Derby.

After compiling an excellent record as a 2-year-old and winning his first two starts at 3, he was solidly favored at Churchill Downs but ran a lackluster Derby. After that debacle, however, he dominated the other members of his generation, winning the Preakness, Belmont, Haskell, and Travers Stakes - making him the only horse to win four $1 million races in a row. But he suffered an injury in August and was retired to stud before being tested against older horses. There is no certainty that he could have beaten significant rivals like Tiznow.

Tiznow won the Santa Anita Handicap in March, but physical problems kept him out of action for six months. His first two comeback races were disappointments, but he recaptured his form and defeated the brilliant European invader Sakhee in the Breeders' Cup Classic, making him the first horse to score back-to-back victories in America's richest race. Point Given had never beaten a field remotely as good.

So who is the Horse of the Year? Point Given. He delivered many outstanding performances as he compiled his 6-for-7 record, while Tiznow's claims to the title are based almost solely on a single race. If Tiznow had lost the photo finish in the Breeders' Cup instead of winning by a nose, he would not be mentioned as a candidate for Horse of the Year.

Tiznow won the Horse of the Year title in 2000 after a similar campaign - with less than a half-season of good performances climaxed by a photo-finish victory in the Breeders' Cup. There wasn't a reasonable alternative to him then.

Although he is a good horse and a gutsy competitor, he doesn't deserve to have his name bracketed with the other Thoroughbreds who have won the top Eclipse Award in consecutive years - Secretariat, Forego, Seattle Slew, and Cigar. Those horses had campaigns of historic dimensions; Tiznow has merely been one of the best two horses in a year when no American Thoroughbred excelled.

The best horses who set foot on American soil in 2001 were the European invaders who showed up for the Breeders' Cup. Foreign horses pose a dilemma for Eclipse Award voters; if an invader comes here for a single Breeders' Cup race and wins it, should he be named an American champion over runners who competed here all year?

The tacit standard is this: If a foreign horse delivers an overpowering performance, and no American horse in the category has compiled an exemplary record, the foreign horse will get the Eclipse.

By this measurement, an unprecedented three American championships will go to European runners - Johannesburg as top 2-year-old colt, and Fantastic Light and Banks Hill as the top male and female turf runners. They had season-long records of excellence and deserve the vote, but it is not with enthusiasm that I will cast a vote for horses who have demonstrated the relative weakness of U.S. racing.

The one vote I will cast with conviction and enthusiasm is likely to be in a futile cause. Xtra Heat deserves to be the champion 3-year-old filly. Unlike her frail contemporaries who can't last a whole season, Xtra Heat has been running steadily for the last 17 months. This year she has made 13 starts (as many as Point Given and Tiznow combined) and won nine without running a subpar race. But she is a pure sprinter, and there is no precedent for giving a sprinter the title as the champion of her age group.

None of the other leading 3-year-old fillies, however, has done enough to deserve the Eclipse Award. Flute and Fleet Renee each won two major stakes but never beat their elders. Unbridled Elaine won the Breeders' Cup Distaff, but it was her only major win of the year. None of them had the temerity to tackle male competition; if they had tried, they would have been trounced.

Xtra Heat dominated the sprinters of her own sex, then took on the nation's fastest males twice, finishing second in the Breeders' Cup and third in the De Francis Dash. If more horses had her quality and durability, we wouldn't be fretting about the declining state of the American Thoroughbred.

More than any other American horse who competed in 2001, Xtra Heat deserves to be recognized as a champion.

(c) 2001 The Washington Post