12/23/2008 12:00AM

The '08 envelopes, please

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The voting for this year's Eclipse Awards is in progress, and I voted for Midshipman as the top 2-year-old male; Stardom Bound for 2-year-old filly; Big Brown, 3-year-old colt or gelding; Eight Belles over her stablemate Proud Spell for 3-year-old filly; and Indian Blessing narrowly over the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint winner Ventura.

I also voted Commentator as champion sprinter, narrowly, over BC Sprint winner Midnight Lute and the four-time stakes winner Benny the Bull. Commentator may not have run in traditional sprint stakes, but he was the fastest horse I saw this year.

Zenyatta was the runaway best older filly or mare any of us saw and should be a unanimous pick in her division. I also voted for European import Conduit as the top male turf horse on the merits of his highly rated Breeders' Cup Turf win, even though the second-place finisher, Eagle Mountain, was prematurely urged to make his challenge on the far turn and race favorite Soldier of Fortune lost all chance while being ridden too aggressively right from the start.

The BC Filly and Mare Turf winner Forever Together got my vote as the top female turf horse narrowly over the exceptional BC Mile winner Goldikova. Good Night Shirt was a cinch vote as top steeplechase/hurdler, and Curlin was equally easy to vote for as the nation's top older horse.

Garrett Gomez was a close pick over Rafael Bejarano for top jockey, and Inez Karlsson seemed a proper selection over the overly aggressive but very talented Pascacio Lopez as the top apprentice jockey.

Jerry Hollendorfer was my top trainer of 2008, having done more good work with much less stock than Steve Asmussen, who broke his own record for wins this year while his assistants saddled most of his 2,000-plus horses. I also thought trainer Jack Fisher deserves some votes for his stellar work with the steeplechase/hurdler Good Night Shirt. To me this category never is about numbers, it is about outstanding feats of horsemanship.

Embattled track owner Frank Stronach was America's top owner and top breeder (Adena Springs Farm). Yet it is most disappointing that Stronach has not been able to transfer his farm and stable management skills to the broad stable of racetracks he owns.

Having finished all that voting on the standard ballot, something still seemed to be missing, as usual. What was missing were things that horseplayers think most about - the Best Bet of 2008 and, if you will, having written "The Best and Worst of Thoroughbred Racing" for DRF Press in 2007, the worst bet as well. My nominees are:

Best Bet of 2008: While Stardom Bound at 5.50-1 to win the Del Mar Debutante was a pretty good bet after two amazing, eye-catching second-place finishes at six and 6 1/2 furlongs over the Del Mar Polytrack, my best bet of the year was an exacta box: Well Armed (at 14-1) and Heatseeker (at 5-1) in the 1 1/8-mile San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita on Feb. 9.

This, after they had finished a close second and third, respectively, in the San Pasqual Stakes at 1 1/16 miles over the souped-up yet fragile Cushion Track that probably was the fastest, most unstable racing surface in American racing history. Both Well Armed and Heatseeker handled the surface well and looked to be legit candidates to win. From any handicapping perspective, both were hard to separate. While the exacta came back an incredible $199.80 for $2, the handicapping lessons in this race will continue to pay dividends for years to come.

Consider:

Lukewarm betting favorite Awesome Gem had a history of disappointing his followers. Not only had Awesome Gem failed to win in eight months, he had not run since the Breeders' Cup in Oct. 2007. Thus he hardly could have been expected to show up with an A+ effort in this spot against seasoned, fit rivals who had good recent form over the tricky Santa Anita track at this level of competition. Awesome Gem did well to finish a nonthreatening third at 2.30-1.

Heatseeker, beautifully trained by Hollendorfer, had completed 2007 with a win in the Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park as one of the most improved horses on the Southern California circuit. Following this second-place finish to Well Armed in the San Antonio, he would win the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap and hold that high level of form through a win and a second in his final two starts before he was injured and retired.

Sweetnorthernsaint, the second betting choice at 4.40-1, had not run since finishing sixth in a stakes at Turfway Park in December and was viewed by most as the logical pace challenger to Well Armed. Realistically, Well Armed had the best pace numbers and seemed the logical lone speed in the field, all of which meant that Sweetnorthernsaint would be lucky to hit the board. After chasing Well Armed for six furlongs, Sweetnorthernsaint quit badly and finished last and almost qualified as the worst bet of the year.

Worst Bet of the Year: As it turned out, not too many people could have been pleased with the 3-10 odds they elected to take on Big Brown to win the Belmont stakes, but before the race, not too many people thought he could lose, so he does not qualify. For my money - and I am glad it was not my money - the worst bet of the year was Ginger Punch at 40 cents on the dollar to beat the impressive Zenyatta in the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park on April 5, 2008.

Although Zenyatta did not have Ginger Punch's $2 million bankroll or her 2007 Eclipse Award as the best older filly or mare, the newly minted rising star had turned in the most visually impressive early season stakes win this side of Big Brown's Florida Derby in the El Encino Handicap at Santa Anita on Jan. 13. With that evidence, Zenyatta seemed a formidable challenger to the overbet Ginger Punch.

Living up to her advance billing, Zenyatta cruised to a 4 1/2-length victory in the Apple Blossom while equaling the fastest Beyer Speed Figure, a 104, that Ginger Punch had earned in her entire career. It was only the beginning.

As for Horse of the Year, I thought Curlin's campaign was a good one, a noble, well-intentioned effort by owner Jess Jackson to showcase a top-notch horse beyond his 3-year-old Horse of the Year campaign. But two of his races were in Dubai, one a virtual exhibition, and one of his midseason races was a defeat on the grass. His final race, the Breeders' Cup Classic, was a disappointing fourth-place finish behind two European milers and the purse-nibbler Tiago.

While that still might be enough to earn Curlin enough votes for Horse of the Year, not for me. Not this year - not balanced against the powerful, unblemished performances turned in by Zenyatta in her seven 2008 races, all at the Grade 1 and Grade 2 level. While we owe some thanks to Curlin for a good 4 year old campaign, I think Zenyatta deserves Horse of the Year for her electrifying performances. I just wish I could have bet more on her at Oaklawn.