01/27/2009 12:39AM

Eclipse Night

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MIAMI BEACH -- It wasn't the best or worst of Eclipse Awards dinners tonight at the Fountainebleu Hotel. Curlin (Horse of the Year), Proud Spell (3-year-old filly) and Benny the Bull (Sprinter) won the three most uncertain equine categories; the lone shocker was Frank Stronach (owner) over IEAH Stables by a single vote; and the news nugget of the night beyond the awards was that Benny the Bull is being unretired and will return this summer to defend his new title.

Some notes as it unfolded:

7:39 pm: Stardom Bound's trainer last year, Christopher Paasch, says it was "an honor to know her."

7:43 pm: The Henegan Brothers give a shoutout to the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance for their help in spreading the word about their excellent movie "The First Saturday in May."

8:01 pm: Neat trivia: Equibase President Hank Zeitlin, presenting the male turf horse award to Conduit, says that 27 percent of the 5600+ grass races run in North America in 2008 included at least one horse bred outside the United States and Canada.

8:30 pm: Okay, maybe I'm prejudiced since I handed this one out to the guy who won our contest last year, but I thought the highlight of the night, certainly for horseplayers, was Richard Goodall's speech accepting the 2008 Handicapper of the Year award. He eloquently beseeched track management to take care of their customers, keep the game fun, and work to repeal the insane Federal taxation system regarding gambling winnings.

8:45: Congressman Dennis Cardozo of California, about to present an award, agrees with Goodall and says it's "high time" to change the gambling-tax rules.

8:50: The huge IEAH contingent erupts with joy as Benny the Bull is named champion sprinter and announces he will return to training this summer. 

8:57 pm: Steve Asmussen's (Outstanding Trainer) gracious acceptance speech includes an acknowledgment of Parker Buckley, the exercise rider killed in a training accident at Saratoga last summer.

9:03 pm: The announcement of Stronach as Outstanding Owner stuns the room and may be the most talked-about result of the night. Sixteen different entities received votes on the 242 ballots, and Stronach triumphed by a 47-46 pluraility over IEAH, the heavy favorite after winning 11 Grade 1 races with eight different horses. As Jay Privman's news story on the voting reports, IEAH was the choice of two of the three voting blocs, the DRF and the National Turf Writers, but Stronach outpolled IEAH 17-4 among NTRA voters, who include racing officials at Stronach-owned tracks.

9:12 pm: Jerry Moss reopens the debate over the meaning of Zenyatta's name while accepting her award as champion older filly. Everyone agrees that it came from the title of The Police album "Zenyatta Mondatta," but Moss said the phrase means "Top of the World" in Sanskrit while Sting has always insisted they are merely pleasing-sounding nonsense words. Sanskrit scholars are invited to weigh in.

9:25 pm: Moss returns to the stage to thank Mike Smith for his rides on Zenyatta, which he forgot to do during his earlier speech.

9:47 pm: The show is running 17 minutes late but Jess Jackson keeps on going accepting Curlin's Horse of the Year trophy, veering away from racing with a gratuitous plea to President Obama to cut taxes and reduce government spending. When Jackson is done, emcee Kenny Rice gets off his best line of the night, suggesting that Jackson adopt the slogan "Jess We Can."

Two final thoughts:

*Especially given the every-vote-counts closeness of some awards, it's appalling how many completely indefensible ballots are cast through ignorance or whimsy. How in the world did two people vote for Ginger Punch over Zenyatta for champion older filly when Zenyatta drubbed her both times they met? How could anyone justify the single votes for Albertus Maximus and Go Between for champion older male over Curlin, or Tale of Ekati over Big Brown as champion 3-year-old?

*If there was a recurring theme to the most contested divisions, it was a preference among voters for a season of dirt accomplishments over synthetic-track form at the Breeders' Cup -- Indian Blessing over Ventura, Benny the Bull over Midnight Lute and Street Boss, even Curlin's wide margin(153 to 69) over Zenyatta for Horse of the Year.