12/17/2004 1:00AM

Who's getting your vote - and why


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Since the conclusion of the recent presidential campaign, there have been precious few opportunities for us to disagree strongly with friends, neighbors, and family members.

The good news for racing fans who have desperately missed the arguing is that Eclipse Award ballots have now been received by most members of the media, and our opinions will be offered freely from now until the Dec. 27 voting deadline. If things go well, there should be enough controversy to make everyone happy.

Traditionally, members of the media convey their opinions on who deserves to win in each voting category, with the hope of convincing other voters and the general public to agree. But that isn't the primary focus of this column. My goal is to encourage you to pin down the standards you expect a horse to meet to earn your vote, and to apply them consistently each year.

For example, how do you handle a longshot Breeders' Cup winner who only showed sub-par form coming into the race? Is his Breeders' Cup victory an automatic rubber stamp that entitles him to your vote in the applicable category, or will you choose to pass on him unless he backs that unexpected victory with a post-Breeders' Cup triumph against meaningful competition? I insist on confirmation of the upset win, but I won't be disappointed at all if you disagree with me. My point is that the situation comes up frequently, and it makes little sense to vote one way this year, and then go the opposite way next year under similar circumstances.

Ghostzapper supporters believe he deserves to be Horse of the Year because he has consistently been the fastest horse. Fans of Smarty Jones believe his public relations value is deserving of extra credit. I am not oblivious to the value of public relations, and I appreciate the fact Smarty Jones has created new racing fans, but by my standards Ghostzapper's raw talent supersedes the popularity of Smarty Jones and makes him the clear choice. If Smarty Jones rescues a couple of small children from a burning building between now and the voting deadline, I'll have to reconsider.

I have seen a tendency among my friends and colleagues to vote for horses and people who are based in the same part of the country they are located in, and I believe it is often unfair. If you truly think these horses and people stand out based on their performance over the course of the year, fine. But don't be a rubber stamp for a candidate in any category based on geographic loyalty. Your vote should be based primarily on the merits of the individual in question.

I would also like to encourage voters to put a little extra thought into the listing of the statistics we see on the people we evaluate. For example, take a look at the numbers listed for the leading apprentice jockeys. It doesn't require much thought to note that Brian Hernandez Jr. has won more races than his rivals have, with 233 trips to the winner's circle through Dec. 5. Since he has done a lot of his riding in Kentucky, any geographic bias on my part would make him the easy pick to make.

I have a lot of respect for Hernandez. But before voting for him, why not reshuffle the numbers a bit? Rather than passively accepting the idea that the total number of wins is the only way to rank these jockeys, I suggest that you take a closer look at some of the other numbers. The 1,377 horses ridden by Hernandez have earned $4,149,731. You will find Pablo Fragoso just three slots below Hernandez in the win standings, at 158. But Fragoso stands out from the pack with earnings of $6,837,772 despite having ridden just 1,111 mounts (he missed a couple of months due to injury). A check of their earnings per race shows Hernandez at $3,013, with Fragoso more than doubling that amount at $6,154. I'm going with Fragoso.

How do you handle an impressive horse who specializes in one type of race, then dabbles in another type, and beats the other specialists at their own game? The situation comes up often enough to deserve some thought. This year, if you are a big fan of Ghostzapper, you have some thinking to do in your vote for the top sprinter. Ghostzapper was a comfortable winner of the Grade 2 Tom Fool, in which he earned a 120 Beyer, a figure higher than the ones earned by the other sprinters listed in that category. He beat just three opponents that day, however, and they were not the leading contenders in the sprint category. I also believe that sprint specialists do not usually get as much respect as they deserve, so I am reluctant to go with an outsider for that award, despite his immense talent. Even though my long-term policy is to usually give the advantage to horses like Ghostzapper, I am open to the possibility of making an exception under special circumstances. In this case, I'll go with Speightstown.