Who is the 1999 horse of the year?

That question has produced widely divergent opinions since the Breeders' Cup ended on an inconclusive note. Behrens came into the Classic with solid credentials: four victories and four second-place finishes in important stakes races. A victory--or even a respectable effort in the Classic--would have earned him the sport's top honor. But in the race that had been his main objective for months, he gave a dismal, inexcusable performance, finishing seventh behind the long-shot winner Cat Thief. After Behrens raced himself out of contention, the Daily Racing Form's Mike Watchmaker made this morning line for the horse of the year race: Victory Gallop, 9 to 5; Daylami, 2 to 1; Charismatic 3 to 1; Artax 12 to 1.

The support for Victory Gallop and Charismatic is based on a dubious premise: It's better to retire early and rest on limited credentials than to endure an ambitious campaign as Behrens did. Victory Gallop's career was ended by an injury after he beat Behrens by an inch in the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga. He won one other stakes races in his four starts during 1999. If he and Behrens were dead even in ability (as the Whitney suggested), and Behrens accomplished so much more overall, how can Victory Gallop be the horse of the year?

Charismatic won two of America's most famous races, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, before he suffered a career-ending injury in the Belmont Stakes. But the only important victories of his life came within a one-month period, and he accomplished them against an ordinary group of 3-year-olds. He never faced older rivals such as Victory Gallop and Behrens, and it is questionable whether he could have beaten them. He retired with a 5-for-17 record. How can Charismatic be the horse of the year?

Other candidates would stretch the traditional definition of the horse of the year. The trainers of Beautiful Pleasure and Soaring Softly have made a case for their fillies in the wake of their Breeders' Cup victories, but fillies can't properly claim the title unless they defeat males. Neither Beautiful Pleasure nor Soaring Softly tried, and neither could have beaten top colts; the fillies deserve no serious consideration.

The two most impressive Breeders' Cup winners, Daylami in the Turf and Artax in the Sprint, will get plenty of well-founded support. Daylami was Europe's best older horse this season, and he scored an emphatic victory in the Turf. His supporters can reasonably argue that he was the most talented thoroughbred to set foot on a U.S. track this year. Nevertheless, running 1 1/2 miles on the grass is the Europeans' game, and Daylami beat a subpar group of American turf runners with the aid of an easy trip. This is America's horse of the year title, not the world's, and it should go to a horse who campaigned in this country's important races, not a foreigner who raced here only once.

Artax is also a difficult horse to evaluate. His overall record was spotty, but his victories were spectacular. He ran seven furlongs in 1 minute 20 seconds at Aqueduct, breaking Dr. Fager's track record; six furlongs in 1:07 3/5 at Belmont Park, breaking Groovy's track record; and six furlongs in 1:07 4/5 in the Breeders' Cup at Gulfstream, equaling the great Mr. Prospector's track record. The three best Beyer Speed Figures of 1999 all belonged to Artax. Yet there is no precedent for honoring a pure sprinter as horse of the year, and none for bestowing a title upon a horse with a 4-for-15 record.

The proper decision on the 1999 horse of the year would be to give no award at all, just as Pulitzer Prize juries sometimes find no worthy recipient in a category. None of the candidates deserves to have his name on a list with Secretariat, Citation, Kelso and Forego. If the Eclipse Award ballot had a box for "None of the Above," that's the one I'd check.

But since some horse will win the honor, it should go to a competitor who conducted a genuine championship campaign. This is the title for horse of the year, not horse of the month (Charismatic) or horse of the day (Daylami). I would vote for Artax if he didn't have so many blemishes on his 15-race record. So I will cast my ballot, however unenthusiastically, for Behrens. He competed from January through November in major stakes races, and ran well in all but one start. He shouldn't be forgotten just because his lone bad effort is the one fresh in everybody's mind.