Eclipse Award voting flawed

Forgotten by many voters, the criteria are moldering, disintegrating, crumbling to ashes. And when the process is complete, which will probably be with the announcement of this year's winners, the Eclipse Awards will no longer represent championships but will instead reflect popularity. That might not be a ruinous development and could even be beneficial, but, of more importance perhaps, if that's the way it's going to be, then everybody, every fan from New York to California, should have the opportunity to vote for the Eclipse Awards.

Based on the historical criteria, the only reasonable and justifiable votes for champion older male are Game On Dude and Mucho Macho Man. Voters can choose to emphasize Game On Dude's body of work -- for most of the year, he sat atop the division, winning five major stakes and giving two of the season's best performances, in the Santa Anita Handicap and the Pacific Classic -- or they can emphasize Mucho Macho Man's season-ending superiority -- he won the Awesome Again Stakes emphatically and then took the most important race of the year, the Breeders' Cup Classic, by a nose. History insists the champion older horse must be one or the other. And yet many voters, even some who should know better, have indicated a preference for Wise Dan, who shouldn't even be considered for the award.

The erosion of criteria for the Eclipse Awards started years ago and has been ongoing -- it began when the first voter said there are no criteria, which meant only that he was ignorant of them -- and it could culminate here, with Wise Dan. That isn't to say he isn't a champion or a superlative and admirable racehorse. He's every bit of all that. But he's the champion turf horse, not the champion older horse, except perhaps to literal-minded voters determined to renounce historical criteria.

When the sport formally began to acknowledge and honor its champions, there was very little turf racing in America. And so the champion older, or handicap, horse was, of course, the most accomplished older competitor on dirt. Even when the Eclipse Awards were created, in 1971, America's most significant racing remained, for the most part, on dirt. Of the 114 racetracks in North America, according to The American Racing Manual of 1973, only 24 even had a turf course. An award for both the champion older horse and the champion on dirt would have been redundant.

It would have been like saying the first at Belmont is a maiden race for horses that never have won. Until recently, it was simply understood that the champion older horse raced on dirt and that the award honored his accumulation of achievements in the sport's traditional races on the main track. For those racing on grass, there was an Eclipse Award honoring the best turf horse. To win both awards, and some did, such as Round Table and Dr. Fager, a horse had to win at the highest level on both surfaces.

That's why John Henry, at age 9, was the champion turf horse and Horse of the Year for 1984, but not the champion older horse. How could a 9-year-old Horse of the Year not be the champion older male? He didn't win on dirt. That's why Kotashaan, at age 5, was the champion turf horse and Horse of the Year for 1993, but not the champion older horse. He didn't win on dirt. And it's why Wise Dan shouldn't be the champion older horse for 2013: He didn't win on dirt.

In recent years, perhaps because they're ignorant of history or, more likely, because they're rejecting it in favor of either literalism or modernity, voters have blurred the distinction. In effect, they've renounced criteria. And without criteria, an Eclipse vote becomes more about the voter than the horses.

Perhaps this shift is all part of the "narcissism epidemic," to borrow a phrase from psychologists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell. The research is abundant indicating that people are becoming increasingly narcissistic -- that is, more self-absorbed, more egotistical, more self-serving, more inclined to see everything in relation to themselves, their needs, their opinions, their wants, and their preferences -- and so less inclined to accept the criteria of history.

Nathan DeWall, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, in a computerized analysis of the music of three decades, found that modern song lyrics, with their increasing use of the first-person pronouns "me" and "I" and with their relentless self-absorption, clearly reflect this "narcissism epidemic." He could have said the same about modern sports writers, who tend to write more about themselves than about sports, or even modern paddock hosts, who talk proprietarily about their picks rather than about the upcoming race.

In the narcissistic mind, historical criteria don't matter. No criteria matter so much as personal preference, whim, or want. One opinion becomes as good as another, no matter how ill informed. If this epidemic continues to gain momentum -- and it may be irreversible -- Eclipse voting will become a my-favorite-horse exercise, and, yes, the Awards won't represent championships so much as reflect popularity.

Has that moment arrived? When Wise Dan is named the champion older horse and the historical criteria leave the scene in a dustpan, it'll become clear that the time has arrived for turning the Eclipse Awards into a true metric of popularity. It'll be time for the fans to vote because, after all, their opinions and preferences are actually important.