What Rules?

The old saying is, "Rules are made to be broken." What about a case where there are no rules? One example is the voting process for Thoroughbred racing's champions.

I've had an Eclipse Award vote for 18 years. Like other voters, I'm on my own. There are no guidelines, other than using the official ballot, and the deadline by which it must be received by mail or fax.

There is no right or wrong. The decisions you make are your own, and the way you arrive at them are personal.

For the most part, that is exactly as it should be.

Voting for Eclipse Award winners is like voting for most valuable players in other sports. Most valuable to one voter may not necessarily be most valuable to another.

Does a 2-year-old have to win around two turns? Must a 3-year-old defeat older horses? Can a filly be Horse of the Year if she didn't defeat colts?

What should carry more weight (yes, that's a pun, because horses don't carry much weight anymore) when choosing among the human Eclipse Award candidates? Money? Wins? Stakes wins?

In information supplied to voters by Daily Racing Form, Richard Englander had the most wins and earnings among owners, but the majority came from claiming races. Should that matter?

Bob Baffert won the money title among trainers, but his total included $3.6 million earned by Captain Steve for winning the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I). Should races outside North America count? Should these earnings count since they are called the North American Eclipse Awards?

Among jockeys, Ramon Dominguez won the most races, Jerry Bailey the most money, and Russell Baze had the highest winning percentage. What's more important?

There is no right answer, no secret formula, no magic elixir. Only 225-plus voters and their respective tendencies, biases, and gut feelings.

Voters are not required to name a selection in every category. I have never voted for steeplechaser since the category was moved from a committee selection to being decided by vote. I don't follow steeplechase racing and don't feel qualified or comfortable voting in that division.

While selecting no champion in a category is acceptable, so, too is choosing more than one horse. Some voters apparently are unable to decide upon a champion, so they split their vote among two horses.

Since I went to work at Daily Racing Form and qualified to vote for the Eclipse Awards in 1984, five horses have been crowned champion after making only one start in North America. That number is going up when the 2001 winners are announced Feb. 18. Johannesburg, Banks Hill, and Fantastic Light are all leading Eclipse Award finalists.

I have a personal rule of thumb against voting for horses who ship in and win one race. But I admit I have sprained that thumb once, having gotten caught up in the Arazi hype machine in 1991. Votes were not cast for the other four single-race winners--Pebbles, Daylami, Kalanasi, and two-time champ Miesque.

The first Breeders' Cup was run the same year I filled out my first ballot. I have seen every Breeders' Cup race, most live, the rest on television. The most impressive winner I have seen is Miesque, yet I didn't vote for her either year. Being the best on Breeders' Cup Day is great, but should one race make a champion?

A victory on Breeders' Cup Day is what Arazi, Pebbles, Miesque, Daylami, Kalanasi, Johannesburg, Banks Hill, and Fantastic Light all have in common.

In my opinion, many voters place too much emphasis on the Breeders' Cup. It may now be called the World Thoroughbred Championships, but the Eclipse Awards are still called North American.

I have always voted with the understanding that Eclipse Awards should be for an entire campaign, not one start.

Consider this: Lido Palace wins the March 2 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) by 10 lengths, then retires. Some horse from Europe makes one start in this country, winning the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) by a nose. Would both be considered candidates for Eclipse Awards?

In Canada, a horse must make three starts in that country before being considered a candidate for a Sovereign Award. It's not a perfect system, but it might make more sense than our lack of a system.

DAN LIEBMAN is executive editor of The Blood-Horse.