02/22/2002 12:00AM

Two-party Eclipse (Apples, Oranges)

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NEW YORK - The morning after last Monday's Eclipse Awards Dinner, a famous horse trainer was grumpily holding court in the Ft. Lauderdale airport. Traveling by air is enough to make anyone grumpy these days, but the trainer's beef was not with the standards for carry-on luggage but with those for the Eclipses for owning and training.

"I can't believe they gave the award to Richard Englander," the trainer began. "And there's no way Scott Lake should be a finalist for trainer. Those guys shouldn't even be considered. The game's supposed to be about quality, not quantity. Take them out of the picture and it wouldn't make a ripple."

It's a provocative if not particularly gracious or accurate point of view that raises a question: Should the sport be honoring the owners and trainers who do best in the upper crust of graded stakes races, or those who win the most races and money without regard to their success in top-flight events?

This year's choices were a textbook case of comparing apples and oranges. The three finalists for the owner award were the nation's three top money winners, and their principal trainers were the trainer finalists. They took two distinct paths to hanging up their numbers.

Englander led the nation's owners in earnings with $9.8 million, and did it by winning 406 races with 2,041 starters. Lake, who trains for Englander and other primarily claiming-oriented outfits, had similarly gaudy stats, winning 407 races with 1,566 starters, and $7.8 million in purses.

Lake's 407 winners were by far the most in the nation, but his purse earnings were good for only fifth place, and the one-two earners were his competition for the award: Bob Baffert, who won 138 races and $16.3 million, and Bobby Frankel, who won 101 races and $14.7 million.

Similarly, Baffert's and Frankel's main clients got to the two-three spots behind Englander with far fewer starters and winners: The Thoroughbred Corp. won 67 races and earned $8 million, while Juddmonte Farms won 41 races and $6.9 million.

So who do you vote for? Lake and Englander, with so many victories but neither with a championship-caliber horse? Baffert and the Thoroughbred Corp., which campaigned Point Given, the Horse of the Year, and Grade 1 winners Habibti and Officer? Or Frankel and Juddmonte, who together won major races with Aptitude, Flute, and Skimming, and separately won others with Banks Hill, Squirtle Squirt, and You?

The voters effectively split their ballot, going for Englander and Frankel. The choices may seem quirky, but they have an underlying logic.

One of the nice things about the Eclipse Awards is that there are no rules mandating specific selection criteria, which allows voters to be flexible and to reward different types of achievement. This leads to unconventional selections such as Xtra Heat as 3-year-old filly, despite being a sprinter and not contesting the division's glamour events, and lets the Horse of the Year be anything from a juvenile to a grass specialist or a handicap horse in different years.

In the same vein, the voters felt that Englander's achievements by volume were so overwhelming that he deserved the award despite doing most of his business in the claiming ranks. It was a close call over Juddmonte, but that outfit's success was more properly recognized with the Outstanding Breeder Award. As for the Thoroughbred Corp., Point Given skewed their totals.

On the trainer's side, Frankel's year was as extraordinary qualitatively as Englander's was quantitatively. His 101 victories included 18 Grade 1 events, nearly 20 percent of the entire national schedule, and he had a top horse in virtually every division.

So the voters picked one special apple and one special orange, and that's a proper spirit for the Eclipse Awards. Some meddlers have proposed that there be specific guidelines for Horse of the Year or that all champions be required to make at least two North American starts (which would have disqualified Banks Hill, Fantastic Light, and Johannesburg last year and Arazi, Daylami, and Pebbles in years past). Such requirements would prevent the proper recognition of one of racing's most appealing facets - that excellence comes in so many different varieties.