12/28/2007 1:00AM

Tough to pick Eclipse runners-up

EmailNEW YORK - There are going to be more surprises when the three finalists in each of the 12 equine Eclipse Award divisions are announced next Friday than when the envelopes with the winners' names are opened 17 days later in Beverly Hills. There is an odds-on favorite for each award, so the real challenge in filling out this year's ballots, which are due Wednesday, was in casting the second- and third-place votes that will determine the two other finalists in each division.

Being named an Eclipse finalist is a legitimate honor, especially now that a sensible voting system is in place to select those horses. Until three years ago, flawed electoral schemes had led to some unfair and even silly selections for runners-up. Counting only first-place votes had led to situations where an overwhelming favorite got 98 percent of the votes and one or two whimsical or contrary votes against him vaulted an obscure and undeserving horse into second or third in the standings. This led to instituting 1-2-3 votes, but using the second and third choices to help determine the winner under a point system was an invitation to mischief: Voters with a strong preference in a close two-way race sometimes left the other clear contender off their ballot entirely to help their choice amass more points.

The current system has it right: The winner is determined only by first-place votes, while the two others who get the most total points are the other finalists. So there is no incentive for a voter who feels strongly, for example, that Indian Blessing deserves the nod over Country Star for the 2-year-old filly title to leave Country Star off his ballot. Meanwhile, goofy selections in a category where the winner gets virtually every first-place vote will not become finalists because they will not receive enough wide support in the second- and third-place voting.

While most of the winners were runaways, many of the minor awards were photo finishes. Underneath Rags to Riches, for example, you could make cases for Lady Joanne, Lear's Princess, Octave, or Panty Raid, as tough to separate on paper as they were on the racetrack. I went for Octave and Panty Raid because of the races they won, but it was a squeaker.

Reserving the right to tinker with these choices between now and Wednesday morning, here is how I'm planning to vote:

2-year-old: 1. War Pass 2. Pyro 3. Court Vision

2-year-old filly: 1. Indian Blessing 2. Country Star 3. Proud Spell

3-year-old: 1. Curlin 2. Street Sense 3. Daaher

3-year-old filly: 1. Rags to Riches 2. Octave 3. Panty Raid

Older male: 1. Lawyer Ron 2. Lava Man 3. Corinthian

Older female: 1. Ginger Punch 2. Nashoba's Key 3. Unbridled Belle

Turf male: 1. English Channel 2. Kip Deville 3. After Market

Turf female: 1. Lahudood 2. Nashoba's Key 3. Precious Kitten

Sprinter male: 1. Midnight Lute 2. Fabulous Strike 3. Idiot Proof

Sprinter female: 1. Maryfield 2. River's Prayer 3. Dream Rush

Steeplechaser: 1. Good Night Shirt 2. McDynamo 3. Mixed Up

Horse of the Year: 1. Curlin 2. Rags to Riches 3. Street Sense

Explanations for two notable absentees:

* Where's Invasor, likely to be a finalist for best older male? The 2006 Horse of the Year may well have been the best older horse who raced last year, but I consider him ineligible for 2007 championship consideration because he made only two starts. Similarly, Ghostzapper was probably the best older male of 2005, when he made only one start, winning the Met Mile in a brilliant performance, but properly received no serious consideration for a title. Giving out divisional championships for one- or two-race campaigns sets a dangerous precedent and sends the wrong message about how much we expect a horse to do to be honored as the champion of his division.

* Where's Hard Spun? He will probably join Curlin and Street Sense as 3-year-old finalists rather than Daaher, and he was an admirable and versatile competitor. He also lost all five of the biggest races he ran in - the Triple Crown, Haskell, and Breeders' Cup Classic - and wasn't best in any of them. Nor can he be considered a legitimate sprinter candidate off one such race, gritty as it was, restricted to 3-year-olds.

The five human awards are going to take me a few more days. Garrett Gomez and Joe Talamo are easy choices for the jockey and apprentice awards, but the owner, trainer, and breeder titles are tricky and could well be won with less than a majority of the votes. Those three categories, rather than the equine ones, will provide the drama at the awards ceremony.