12/11/2006 12:00AM

Turf champ won't be undisputed

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NEW YORK - There have been years when the Hollywood Turf Cup attracted fields of such high quality that, if needed, this race could have played a part in shaping the Eclipse Award picture for champion turf male. In most of those cases, however, the Hollywood Turf Cup wound up having virtually no impact on the divisional championship picture. By the time it was run - it is the last major Grade 1 turf stakes on the American racing calendar - the championship picture was already well defined, with either one clear-cut Eclipse Award choice or just a couple of obvious title contenders.

This year, Eclipse Award voters could have really used some help from the Hollywood Turf Cup, but it was not to be. None of the horses who competed in Saturday's renewal was close to being considered a legitimate candidate for the divisional championship, and that includes upset winner Boboman, who might prove to be a player in his division next year, but who just two months ago was only able to escape the entry-level allowance condition.

So, what we have in the wake of the Hollywood Turf Cup and with the Eclipse Award voting deadline rapidly approaching is what we had for a few weeks going in: A male turf horse division that is one of the most wide-open of any equine championship division in recent memory. In all likelihood, many Eclipse Award voters have already decided upon the horse they will put on top of their ballots in this category. However, you could ask seven different voters who they picked to be the champion turf male of 2006, and you might get seven different answers.

Seven seems to be the outside number of legitimate candidates for this divisional title. Some of the seven have much better chances of eking out the championship than others. That said, it is difficult, if not impossible, to even identify the favorite. These seven, however, do seem to be a cut above everyone else, and the more you examine their accomplishments, the more you realize that the margin of difference between them is paper-thin.

Here they are, in alphabetical order:

Aragorn: Won two Grade 1 races - the Shoemaker Breeders' Cup Mile and the Eddie Read Handicap - and two Grade 2 stakes, and finished second in two Grade 1 races, including the Breeders' Cup Mile.

Cacique: Won two Grade 1 races - the Manhattan Handicap and the Man o' War Stakes - and finished second in three other Grade 1's.

English Channel: Won three Grade 1 races - the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, the United Nations, and the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational - and finished third in the Breeders' Cup Turf.

Miesque's Approval: Upset the Breeders' Cup Mile, his only Grade 1 win. Also won two Grade 2 races.

Red Rocks: Upset the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Turf in his only North American appearance, and that was his only graded or group victory.

Showing Up: Won two Grade 1 races - the Secretariat Stakes and Hollywood Derby - and won a Gradeo2 race, as well as an ungraded $1 million race.

The Tin Man: Won two Grade 1 races - the Arlington Million and the Clement L. Hirsch Memorial Turf Championship - and two Grade 2 races.

Of course, none of these are perfect candidates for a championship. Given what we know now, if Aragorn won the Breeders' Cup Mile, he'd be champion, but he didn't. With his 10th in the Breeders' Cup Turf, Cacique is probably the longest shot in this group, but before that, he showed all year that there is virtually no difference in ability between him and English Channel. English Channel won the most Grade 1's of this group, but he had no excuse losing two of his last three starts.

Miesque's Approval seems to have some Eclipse Award support, but he was a 24-1 surprise when he made the Mile his lone Grade 1 win. Red Rocks beat a strong field in the Turf, but so did Shirocco in the 2005 Turf in his only North American start, and that didn't get him the championship. Showing Up lost only once on the turf, but that loss was to Cacique in his only start against older horses. Showing Up also did not compete in the Breeders' Cup, something a lot of Eclipse Award voters do not like. The Tin Man won all four of his starts in the U.S., but he struggled in the Hirsch to prevail over T. H. Approval, who was next to last in Saturday's Hollywood Turf Cup. The Tin Man did not compete in the Breeders' Cup, either.

Who among these will get my vote for champion turf male? Well, the deadline for receipt of all Eclipse Award ballots is the afternoon of Wednesday, Dec. 27. I might take all the way up until then to decide, but I already know I won't be entirely satisfied with my choice.