01/18/2008 1:00AM

Two questions left for Eclipse Awards


NEW YORK - It's tough to hit a pick six with only a $12 investment, but that's probably all it would take to lock up the pick 17 being contested at BwB (Beverly Wilshire Ballroom) Monday night, when the 17 official champions of Thoroughbred racing in 2007 will be announced.

You could probably get home with a single $2 cold punch, but my conservative hypothetical ticket would have a mere 15 singles, one double, and one push of the "all" button.

Pigs will fly and investigations will be launched if any of the following 13 names are not announced from the podium as Eclipse Award winners: War Pass (champion 2-year-old), Indian Blessing (2-year-old filly), Curlin (3-year-old), Rags to Riches (3-year-old filly), Ginger Punch (older filly or mare), English Channel (turf male), Lahudood (turf female), Midnight Lute (sprinter), Maryfield (filly sprinter), Good Night Shirt (steeplechaser), Garrett Gomez (jockey), Joe Talamo (apprentice jockey) and Curlin again (Horse of the Year).

The owner and breeder awards have sufficiently nebulous standards that it's hard to feel as confident about them, but Shadwell Stables and Frank Stronach's Adena Springs Farm seem very, very likely respective winners.

If you're down to your last deuce, you're a favorite to get by the rest of the way with just Lawyer Ron (older male) and Todd Pletcher (trainer), but if there's going to be any interruption of the chalk parade, it will come in one of those two categories.

Lawyer Ron won the Whitney, Woodward, and Oaklawn Handicap and lost a photo to Curlin in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. This seemed a sufficiently impressive body of work that I thought I was getting the best of it when I bet a colleague $50 that Lawyer Ron would get at least two-thirds of the first-place votes. I would gladly weasel out of that wager now, though, because there seems to have been a groundswell of support for Invasor, the 2006 Horse of the Year who won the Donn and the Dubai World Cup in his only two starts of 2007.

Invasor may well have been a better horse than Lawyer Ron, but giving him an Eclipse Award for a two-race campaign strikes me as a dreadful precedent that would severely lower the bar for what we require from a championship season. This did not, however, seem to bother at least half a dozen turf-writer voters who have published their ballots.

Pletcher is the deserving favorite for a fourth straight training Eclipse, matching Bobby Frankel's four-peat from 2000-2003. He eclipsed his own record for earnings in a season, trained three of the 11 likely equine champions (English Channel, Lawyer Ron, and Rags to Riches) and sent out a filly to win the Belmont Stakes for the first time in 102 years. Still, some will hold it against him that he was serving a medication suspension early in the year.

On the other hand, so was his principal rival for the award, Steve Asmussen, who in 2006 was barred for six months for a far more serious overage than Pletcher's 2004 infraction, for which Pletcher has steadfastly maintained no wrongdoing. Putting those incidents aside, Asmussen's solid claim to the award is that he again led the nation in total victories, and he also trained the likely Horse of the Year, Curlin.

The reason I would hit the "all" button here is that if enough people are bothered by the medication suspensions, they might turn to the third nominee, Kiaran McLaughlin, a superb trainer no one would begrudge the honor but one who might have more appropriately been honored last year - when he sent out Jazil to win the Belmont and campaigned Invasor to the sport's highest honor.

Some board members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which presents the Eclipse Awards along with the National Turf Writers Association and Daily Racing Form, have proposed that horses trained by individuals who have been suspended should be ineligible for year-end honors in the future. It's nice to see at least some huffing and puffing over racing's drugging issues, but this seems a poor way to take a stand.

First of all, voters can make their own decisions along those lines. Second, it punishes the horses and makes a mockery of history. Are we really supposed to pretend that Curlin wasn't the champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year of 2007? Finally, disinviting people from a black-tie dinner would invite more ridicule than confidence as an industry response to the medication


The most common thread among this year's equine champions is their success on Breeders' Cup Day. Seven of the eight Cup race winners from Oct. 27 - War Pass, Indian Blessing, Curlin, Ginger Punch, English Channel, Lahudood, and Midnight Lute - earned Eclipses that day. Kip DeVille would have made it a sweep except that there's no turf miler award so he will instead run second to English Channel for the grass-male title. The only new Cup race tied to an Eclipse gave Maryfield the new filly sprinter title.

But here's an early prediction for next year: Cup winners may not be such automatic selections. This year's Eclipses are the last of 24 in a row where most titles were determined by the results of Breeders' Cup races run on a conventional dirt track. The 2008 Breeders' Cup is scheduled to be run on Santa Anita's new synthetic Cushion Track, assuming it hasn't washed away by then.

Voters could be faced with tougher choices if horses with strong dirt campaigns don't take to the new surface, or might be reluctant to make champions horses who have raced on nothing except synthetic tracks. The debates will be interesting, and it might take a lot more than $12 to lock up next year's pick 17.