10/18/2002 12:00AM

What counts for a champion

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NEW YORK - Even with a few fairly short fields, there are well over 150 million possible permutations to the results of Saturday's eight Breeders' Cup races. Be grateful it's not an Ultra Pick Eight. No matter how the races turn out, though, there's a much smaller universe of possible answers to the question that hangs over the end of every Breeders' Cup Day: So who's going to be the Horse of the Year?

By my count, only 14 horses are plausible candidates today, and the list will be much shorter by Saturday night. There are plenty of intriguing and talented horses among the 104 Cup pre-entries, but few have accomplished enough this year that even a truly smashing Cup victory would make them realistic candidates for the sport's highest honor.

In rough order of the likelihood they will be getting the supreme Eclipse Award come January, here are the nine realistic candidates and five far-fetched also-eligibles:

1. War Emblem. I'm not enamored with his chances in the Classic, but a victory would make him a deserving unanimous choice. He's also the only horse who can run horribly Saturday and still be a prime contender for the award. He's already accomplished roughly the same as the last three Horse of the Year titlists - Charismatic, Tiznow, and Point Given - by winning the Derby, Preakness, and Haskell.

2. Came Home. Perhaps the only horse besides War Emblem who is an automatic Horse of the Year selection if he wins Saturday, he would end the year having won 7 of 8 starts and with a 2-1 edge on War Emblem.

3. Medaglia d'Oro. A Classic victory Saturday would stamp him the nation's top racehorse, but it's unclear that voters would forgive his losses in all three legs of the Triple Crown. He and War Emblem would have split their four decisions, but does Jim Dandy-Travers-Classic outrank Derby-Preakness-Haskell?

4. Rock of Gibraltar. If he wins the Mile or Classic, he will be 6 for 6 for the year, all of them Group or Grade 1's. The problem is that there are plenty of voters who think that foreign achievements shouldn't count for much - witness the snubbing of Daylami in favor of Charismatic in 1999. A Classic victory, however, would add a new dimension of surface and distance that could prove compelling. If he runs in the Mile, though, forget it: A pure grass miler with one North American start will not be taken seriously.

5. Evening Attire. Should finishing the season with victories in the Saratoga Breeders' Cup, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Classic be enough? Not necessarily. Fair or not, the perception will remain that he couldn't beat the stars of the handicap ranks this summer, Street Cry and Left Bank, before the division fell apart.

6. High Chaparral. A victory in the Turf would make him 5 for 6, including triumphs in the Epsom and Irish derbies. Still, he would face the same bias Daylami did, and losing the Arc weakened his chances.

7. With Anticipation. If the Classic yields an implausible winner, a Turf victory by this beloved 7-year-old gelding would give him four Grade 1's and as much of a right to the title as Kotashaan had in 1993 - the year Arcangues scrambled everything by winning the Classic. The chances of his rebounding from a dismal Turf Classic and beating the Europeans, however, appear dicey.

8. Azeri. A victory in the Distaff would give her a flashy 8-for-9 campaign with five Grade 1's. A small bandwagon to make her Horse of the Year is already forming around that possibility. There's a larger consensus, though, that fillies should not be considered for the award without stepping outside their division, as Lady's Secret did in 1986. That factor would keep any other possible winner of the Distaff, such as Take Charge Lady, from serious consideration.

9. Beat Hollow. All of the above would have to lose, and even then he's a longshot, but four Grade 1's and an Arlington Million-Breeders' Cup Mile combo could look attractive.

The final five possibilities are so remote that it's tough to rank them. All hinge on utterly wacky results in the main events that might send voters toward specialists who are rarely considered for the top honor. Sky Mesa and Storm Flag Flying would each be 4 for 4 if they come through as favorites in the juvenile events, but they would have accomplished less than Favorite Trick did en route to a rare selection as a 2-year-old in 1997, and less than Arazi or Johannesburg did when soundly thrashed in the voting.

Sprinters never win this prize, but conceivably a case could be made for one if everything else goes up in smoke and the Sprint goes to Orientate (five straight stakes), Xtra Heat (eight stakes wins, two against the boys), or Swept Overboard (Met Mile-Sprint). On second thought, maybe not.

What if all 14 of these potential champions lose Saturday? Is there somewhere else to turn? Left Bank and Street Cry may well have been the best horses of the year in their prime, but come up awfully short on accomplishment - a pair of important victories each. If chaos reigns, the advantage belongs to War Emblem. As his future Japanese neighbor Charismatic proved in 1999, you can become Horse of the Year by winning two important races - if those races are the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.