01/23/2009 1:00AM

All you need is 12 singles and $96


NEW YORK - Let's try to hit the Pick 17 at Miami Beach on Monday night, when one of the three finalists in 17 categories will be announced as racing's champions of 2008 at the Eclipse Awards ceremonies at the Fontainebleau Hotel.

Hitting the "all" button in all 17 legs would require a $258 million investment at a $2 minimum, but I think you can lock it up on a $96 play. If you're on a budget, a $16 ticket stands a very good shot of leaving you alive to both Curlin and Zenyatta in the last leg, the Horse of the Year announcement.

The $96 ticket would have 12 stand-alone winners on it, while the $16 play would add two more. Either way, 9 of the 17 categories have winners so clear-cut that there should be a federal investigation if the following are not awarded statuettes: Midshipman (2-year-old male), Stardom Bound (2-year-old filly), Big Brown (3-year-old male), Curlin (older male), Zenyatta (older female), Good Night Shirt (steeplechaser), Steve Asmussen (trainer), Adena Springs (breeder), and Garrett Gomez (jockey).

Five others look like near-cinches, through perhaps more like 2-5 shots than the nine 1-100 shots listed above. I would single Indian Blessing as champion female sprinter, Conduit as champion male turf horse, and IEAH as owner on both tickets. I expect to see Forever Together named champion female turf horse and Pascacio Lopez as the top apprentice rider, and they're pretty safe singles on a $16 investment, but on the bigger ticket I would go two-deep in both, adding Goldikova and Inez Karlsson to the play.

That leaves just three categories where there's enough genuine suspense that it would be prudent to go two or even three-deep in your selections: champion 3-year-old filly, champion sprinter, and Horse of the Year.

The filly picture is clouded by the inconclusive outcome to the rivalry between Music Note and Proud Spell, who between them won most of the division's major events while splitting their two decisions. It is further muddled because votes will be drawn from both by Eight Belles, who died after running second against males in the Kentucky Derby.

Music Note won three Grade 1's (Mother Goose, Coaching club American Oaks, and Gazelle) to Proud Spell's two, but those two were the arguably more defining Kentucky Oaks and Alabama. Also, Music Note won only in New York while Proud Spell also triumphed in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Delaware. I give the edge to Proud Spell but this one could go either way.

So could the male sprinter award, the only one of the 17 where you might want to hit the all-three button. Midnight Lute's repeat victory in the Breeders' Cup Sprint was spectacular but it was his only victory of the year in just a two-start campaign. Benny the Bull was a more appealing 4 for 4 but won no American Grade 1's and made his final start on July 12. Street Boss was 6 for 9 and won two Grade 1's but never raced outside of California and its synthetic tracks. I would use both Benny and Lute on the $16 play, and all three on the bigger one.

If you're still alive going into leg 17 with both Curlin and Zenyatta, go to the window. Big Brown is not getting this award, nor should he, for winning two-thirds of the Triple Crown, and the voters have made it very clear they will always reward a more accomplished older horse over a dual-classic winner: Mineshaft was the pick over Funny Cide in 2003, Ghostzapper topped Smarty Jones in 2004, and Saint Liam beat Afleet Alex in 2005, all in landslides.

Mineshaft, Ghostzapper, and Saint Liam, however, all won their final starts, the latter two in the Breeders' Cup Classic, while Curlin went out on a sour note finishing fourth in the race, which is why there's strong support for Zenyatta. She's a wonderful filly, but I can't see that she fits either of the situations that have made only three fillies the Horse of the Year since the Eclipse Awards began in 1971: Triumphs against males (All Along in 1983 and Lady's Secret in 1986), or a complete lack of acceptable alternatives among the other champions (Azeri, who towered over War Emblem and Left Bank in 2002). Curlin, however, did more than enough, winning the Dubai World Cup, Stephen Foster, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup, to become the first two-time Horse of the Year since Cigar in 1995 and 1996.

I voted for him, and expect to hear his name called from the podium Monday night, but it's always nice to have a backup on your ticket in the last leg, especially in a match race.