02/25/2002 12:00AM

Xtra Heat got votes for the wrong reasons

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NEW YORK - Aside from honoring great achievement - at least, that's what we hope they do - the results of the Eclipse Awards annually provide great fodder for debate. In particular, one result announced last week spurred me to put my debating shoes on: Xtra Heat as champion 3-year-old filly of 2001.

I have to admit that I was probably the last person in the country to accept what a nice filly Xtra Heat is. All those wins on the inner track at Aqueduct, in small fields at the mid-Atlantic tracks, and in the dubious Grade 1 Prioress threw me. It wasn't until her tremendously game second in the Breeders' Cup Sprint that I finally realized how much talent she has.

Now that I admire Xtra Heat, I even worry about her going to Dubai next month for the Golden Shaheen. It's understandable why she's going. Sprinters like her have precious few opportunities to race for seven-figure purses. But I fear that the trip to Dubai, the race, and the trip back may reduce the number of opportunities we will get to see her race here.

Though I developed a respect for her, I don't agree that Xtra Heat should have been voted champion 3-year-old filly. For the record, I voted for Exogenous. But even though I am in the distinct minority - Xtra Heat carried all three Eclipse Award voting blocs - I still don't think it was a wise choice.

The race that put Xtra Heat over the top was her half-length loss to champion sprinter Squirtle Squirt in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. That effort just leaps off the page when you scrutinize Xtra Heat's 2001 past performances. However, there is something very unsettling about the fact that the race that made all the difference for Xtra Heat was a loss.

If Xtra Heat's near miss in the Sprint was unprecedented, then perhaps I would feel differently, but it wasn't. There have been many big, and some better, performances by females in the Sprint. Pine Tree Lane was second in the Sprint in 1986 and Very Subtle romped in it the following year. Safely Kept was beaten just a neck when second in the 1989 Sprint and she won it in 1990, with the help of the shadow-jumping Dayjur. Meafara was beaten two necks when second in successive runnings of the Sprint in 1992 and 1993, and Soviet Problem was beaten only a head when second in 1994. Desert Stormer won it in 1995, and Honest Lady was beaten only a half-length when second in the 2000 Sprint.

Yet all the previous successes of females in the Breeders' Cup Sprint garnered only one championship, by Safely Kept, in the year she lost, 1989. And she was named champion sprinter, not champion 3-year-old filly.

Of course a big reason Xtra Heat was voted champion 3-year-old filly was because none of the other 3-year-old fillies of 2001 stepped up when it counted. But in the year that Very Subtle whipped eventual champion sprinter Groovy by four lengths in the Sprint, Sacahuista was voted champion 3-year-old filly on the strength of victories in the Spinster and Breeders' Cup Distaff. Flute won two Grade 1's last year - the Kentucky Oaks and the Alabama - and those races say 3-year-old filly championships louder than the Breeders' Cup Sprint does. Unbridled Elaine won the Distaff, and she wasn't even an Eclipse Award 3-year-old filly finalist.

When Meafara finished second for the first time in the Sprint, finishing ahead of eventual champion sprinter Rubiano, Saratoga Dew was voted champion 3-year-old filly. She gained that honor on the strength of victories in the Gazelle and Beldame, the same races Exogenous won last fall.

There may have been some Eclipse Award voters who thought that Xtra Heat was too good to be denied some sort of year-end award, and used that as rationalization for the truly ground-breaking vote. If they did, their good intentions may have been misplaced. Alydar, Bold 'n Determined, Exceller, and Majestic Prince were all so good that they were elected to the Hall of Fame. Yet despite earning what is perhaps racing's ultimate honor, none of them was voted a year-end championship. Even Xtra Heat's most ardent fans should, at least at this point, be reticent to place her in their class.

How historic was Xtra Heat's election as champion 3-year-old filly? Consider this: Since the 3-year-old filly division got its own award in 1941, 61 years ago, there had never been a pure sprinter voted champion 3-year-old filly until Xtra Heat.

So, the question is, was this a wise precedent to establish, and should Xtra Heat have been the one to blaze the trail?