01/22/2003 1:00AM

Anticipating a mild award upset


ARCADIA, Calif. - There will be precious little drama at the Eclipse Awards presentations on Monday night. Sure, there's a chance that Tobey Maguire might dangle from a string when the cast of "Seabiscuit" is introduced. Or maybe Kenny Mayne will wax poetic over "The Big Lebowski" as Jeff Bridges takes a bow.

"People, can you believe it? The Dude owns Seabiscuit!"

As for the rest, only the obvious winners need to look their best. The others are finalists in name only. If past form holds up, the categories from top to bottom appear to be cut-and-dried.

But wait. Perhaps there will be a moment of drama after all. If fan polls and street buzz mean anything, the trophy for champion male grass horse will not be engraved until the very last minute. Right now, only the accounting firm hired by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association knows the answer. Will it be High Chaparral, Rock of Gibraltar, or With Anticipation?

Through the most recent update, 3,457 votes have been cast on the Daily Racing Form website in the category of male turf horse, and this one is closer than Gore vs. Bush.

High Chaparral, winner of two European derbies and the Breeders' Cup Turf, had 794 votes, or 23 percent. With Anticipation, a winner of three major American stakes and second in the BC Turf, had 1,031 votes, or 30 percent. Rock of Gibraltar, 5 for 5 in top European competition and second in the Breeders' Cup Mile, had 1,050 votes, which also came out to 30 percent.

Of course, fan polls mean squat when it comes to the actual Eclipse Award process. All the chat room traffic in the world will never budge the vote. Maybe, though, it is time for a modest shift in perspective. After all, horse racing is still the only sport that relies upon the active participation of its fans - unless you count riots at a Raiders game. Somehow, someday, the sponsors of the Eclipse Awards might want to devise a way to incorporate an element of public opinion into these ultimate honors.

Until then, the club is closed. Only turf writers, NTRA racing secretaries, Equibase field personnel, and editorial staff of Daily Racing Form receive ballots. Their verdict has been in for several weeks. But no matter what they have decided, Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard is coming to California anyway. And he's planning to have a good time.

Sheppard is no stranger to the Eclipse Awards. Between 1973 and 1989 he trained six different champions, covering 10 distinct seasons. The thing is, they were all steeplechase champions, which means Sheppard was flying a bit below the traditional racing radar.

Should the vote go to With Anticipation, Sheppard would have his first champion who was not required to deal with the vertical aspects of racing. Last year, at the age of 7, With Anticipation carried the colors of George Strawbridge to victories in the United Nations, the Sword Dancer, and the Man o' War, then finished an admirable second to High Chaparral at Arlington Park. On the face of it, such a record should be good enough for an American campaigner to earn the title.

Eclipse Award voters, however, tend to give the Breeders' Cup results disproportionate weight, even when a winner, like High Chaparral, has run only once in the United States. The three most recent champions - Fantastic Light, Kalanisi and Daylami - fit that profile. In this light, Sheppard was asked to assess With Anticipation's chances when the envelope is opened Monday night in Beverly Hills.

"Slim and none," Sheppard replied. "But, you know, while there's life there's hope. I do think he'll get a little bit of a sentimental vote, because I think he's developed quite a following by now."

Rightfully so. With Anticipation began his career as a 2-year-old in the autumn of 1997, his gray coat bleaching whiter with each passing season. His contemporaries among the 3-year-old class of 1998 include Victory Gallop, Real Quiet, Golden Missile, Coronado's Quest, Royal Anthem, and Chester House, all long since retired.

Sheppard considers With Anticipation's second-place finish in the 2002 Breeders' Cup among the best races of his career. And he would love another crack at the winner.

"Just because he beat us once doesn't necessarily mean to say he could beat us every time," the trainer said. "I do think if we ran a mile and a half around Ascot or Epsom he'd beat us. But it's conceivable, if they met several times on an American track, on a given day the gray horse could beat High Chaparral. We could get an easy lead, and slow the pace up. He could get too far back, or get blocked making his move."

Win or lose Monday night, the good news is that With Anticipation will be back as an 8-year-old. Right now the old boy is wintering, literally, at Sheppard's Pennsylvania farm. Soon he will head to South Carolina for a few calisthenics, then on to Sheppard's stable at Gulfstream Park.

"It's kind of spooky looking at him out there in the snow," Sheppard said. "Hard to tell whether he's a ghost or a real horse."

Either way, he deserves to be a champion.