Total Eclipse

You hear it frequently, either as an explanation or a rationalization for some peculiar Eclipse: The voting is completely subjective; there are no criteria. And with no clear criteria, each voter can follow his heart, his geographic loyalty or his personal Pied Piper; he can veer off into the land of caprice and vote for all his favorites or for the horses that enabled him to cash most happily at the wickets, as if this whole process of choosing horse racing's champions were no more important than a presidential election.

But any insistence that there are no criteria is flimsy flapdoodle. The criteria are out there, understood, like the assumed interdiction against smoking a cigar on an elevator. A lurid "No Smoking" sign isn't necessary: Every gentleman, every lady too, knows not to smoke a cigar on an elevator, unless, of course, it's also occupied by a member of Congress. And Eclipse voters know that history provides the criteria for selecting champions.

But not even history is an infallible guide these days. Racing in recent years has changed in ways that history couldn't anticipate. Horses today race on three distinct surfaces -- dirt, turf and synthetic -- but the Eclipse Awards honor performances on only two. Should there be awards for the best performers on synthetic surfaces? Maybe, but in the meantime, voters will have to improvise.

Are a sealed envelope and a feigned moment of suspenseful uncertainty really necessary? This isn't the Academy Awards.

From here, as happens every year, many of this season's Eclipse Award winners look obvious and indisputable. About some things even voters can't be wrong. Shanghai Bobby, I'll Have Another, Royal Delta, Trinniberg, Groupie Doll -- of course they're champions; they're as conspicuous as Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald at a Tupperware party. Are a sealed envelope and a feigned moment of suspenseful uncertainty really necessary? This isn't the Academy Awards.

But some divisions aren't so clear. Think frothy oatmeal. Who, for example, is the champion male turf horse? Wise Dan, Little Mike or Point of Entry?

This is where history provides guidance. The historical criteria clearly argue for a turf champion who has succeeded at longer distances. The sensational Lure, a two-time winner of the Breeders' Cup Mile, never won an Eclipse Award. But Conduit, English Channel, High Chaparral, Fantastic Light, Daylami, Buck's Boy and Singspiel all got one of those cute Eclipse bibelots after winning the Breeders' Cup Turf.

Some horses, it's true, in this Breeders' Cup era who didn't excel at the 1 1/2 miles of the Turf also have won the award, horses such as Steinlen and Cozzene. But generally, voters only honor a miler with the award by default, if the Breeders' Cup Turf winner isn't a reasonable or acceptable option. In 1989, when Steinlen became the turf champion after winning the Mile, Prized had won the Turf in his grass debut. A horse who seemed to prefer dirt couldn't be the turf champion after only one fluke of a race, could he? (Over the next two years, Prized would win three more turf races.) And in 1985, when Cozzene became the turf champion after winning the Mile, the great Pebbles won the Turf. She, of course, was named champion female turf horse.

And so it has been. Miesque's Approval was named the champion when the uninspiring Red Rocks won the Turf; Leroidesanimaux when Shirocco won the Turf; Tight Spot when Miss Alleged won the Turf; Itsallgreektome when In The Wings won the Turf. History, then, argues rather forecefully that the Breeders' Cup Turf winner should be champion unless, of course, gender or ho-humness argue otherwise.

Little Mike hardly had a ho-hum campaign. He won three of North America's most important grass races -- the Turf, the Arlington Million and the Turf Classic -- in addition to the Sunshine Millions Turf while earning $2.6 million. He's the turf champion on this ballot.

The champion older male is another tough division. Is the champion Wise Dan, Fort Larned, Game on Dude, Shackleford or Mucho Macho Man? Again, history provides some guidance, and it argues that the champion older male is the most accomplished horse on dirt in longer races. He's not a turf horse -- that's why there's a turf award. He's not a sprinter -- that's why there's a sprint award. History, in other words, argues for Fort Larned, who raced from February to November, from Florida to Kentucky and Iowa and New York and, finally, California, where he won the Breeders' Cup Classic, the richest race in North America.

How can Fort Larned be denied an Eclipse? But how can Wise Dan be denied an Eclipse? This is where history fails to provide an answer. Wise Dan was the most admirably consistent horse to race this year in North America, culminating a coruscating campaign with record-setting victory in the Breeders' Cup Mile. But no Horse of the Year has ever not won a divisional title.

Wise Dan isn't the turf champion, he isn't the champion older male, but he is Horse of the Year. It seems illogical, but Wise Dan is so talented and so versatile that he didn't have to confine himself to one surface. He won the Ben Ali by more than 10 lengths on a synthetic surface, and he ran second after a troubled trip on the dirt in the Stephen Foster and, of course, he was unbeaten in his four turf races, all at a mile. If he didn't dominate a division, it was only because his talent gave him options that aren't available to most horses.

It'll be exciting to see where that talent takes him this year, especially if it's to new challenges, to a race such as the Pacific Classic, perhaps, or the Arlington Million. But he's clearly the Horse of the Year on this ballot:

Horse of the Year: Wise Dan
Two-year-old filly: Executiveprivilege
Two-year-old colt: Shanghai Bobby
Three-year-old colt: I'll Have Another
Three-year-old filly: My Miss Aurelia
Older male: Fort Larned
Older female: Royal Delta
Male sprinter: Trinniberg
Female sprinter: Groupie Doll
Male turf horse: Little Mike
Female turf horse: Zagora

Trainer: Bob Baffert
Jockey: R. A. Dominguez
Apprentice jockey: Jose Montano
Owner: Godolphin
Breeder: Darley