10/31/2005 1:00AM

Awards picture takes shape

Ridden by Jerry Bailey, Saint Liam wins the Classic and becomes Afleet Alex's rival for Horse of Year.

ELMONT, N.Y. - It was a gut feeling that told trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. to bypass the Breeders' Cup Classic with Saint Liam one year ago. On form, Saint Liam belonged, having just given Ghostzapper his greatest battle of 2004, in the Woodward Stakes. But Dutrow sensed something wasn't quite right with Saint Liam. There were no injuries, but the colt's slight lethargy gave his trainer pause.

That same intuition was used by Dutrow this year when it came to preparing Saint Liam for the Classic. Dutrow, believing Saint Liam needed time between races, gave Saint Liam his final prep some seven weeks before the Classic. He also made that race, the Woodward, as easy as possible by having a pair of rabbits hound Saint Liam's primary rival, Commentator.

"He was knocked out after last year's Woodward," Dutrow said. "I didn't want that again."

The management by Dutrow - and bloodstock agent Mark Reid, who advises owner William Warren - paid off on Saturday, when Saint Liam won the Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont Park to make himself the favorite for Horse of the Year and the overwhelming choice for champion older horse.

"This race was on our minds the whole year," a raspy voiced Dutrow, who spent Saturday night co-hosting an over-the-top party at a nearby club, said Sunday morning at Belmont Park. "It's why we skipped Dubai, for the chance to be Horse of the Year. To be in this position is something you dream of."

The only other prominent candidate for Horse of the Year is Afleet Alex, who won the Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes, and Arkansas Derby earlier this year. Afleet Alex never raced after the Belmont because of injury, and never ran against older runners. He is a cinch to be named champion 3-year-old colt, but would appear to be an underdog for Horse of the Year.

Many other Eclipse Awards - which are voted on by members of Daily Racing Form, the National Turf Writers Association, and racetrack officials and Equibase members who vote through the National Thoroughbred Racing Association - were likely decided on the track on Saturday. But several other categories are still in doubt, and might be affected by late-season results.

Folklore, who won the Juvenile Fillies, and Stevie Wonderboy, who won the Juvenile, secured championships against fields that included all the leading contenders in their respective divisions.

Intercontinental made herself the favorite to be named champion female turf runner by defeating defending champ Ouija Board in the Filly and Mare Turf, a race that also featured every leading divisional contender.

Voters have far more agonizing decisions in other categories.

One of the most difficult choices will be for sprinter. Lost in the Fog was the division leader going into the Sprint by virtue of eight wins this year, including the Grade 1 King's Bishop, but he suffered his first career defeat in his first graded stakes race against older runners. Silver Train, the Sprint winner, enhanced a record that also included a victory in the Jerome Handicap. But if not for a tough trip, Taste of Paradise and jockey Garrett Gomez might have won the Sprint, which would have given Taste of Paradise a Vosburgh-Sprint parlay to end the year.

Gary Mandella, standing with his pregnant wife, Lucinda, on Sunday morning, joked that their son's name "will not be Rick or Edgar," referring to Dutrow and jockey Prado, who teamed with Silver Train. "Garrett," Mandella said, "has moved way up the charts."

Another tough choice will be for male turf horse. Artie Schiller won the Mile, defeating favored Leroidesanimaux in their only meeting, but it was Artie Schiller's lone Grade 1 win of the year. Leroidesanimaux won a pair of Grade 1 races - the Kilroe Mile and Atto Mile - and was compromised by an outside post and having to wear aluminum plates in the Mile, but he failed in his lone head-to-head meeting with Artie Schiller. Those two seem more logical choices than Turf winner Shirocco. The Turf was Shirocco's lone start in the United States, and his lone victory of the year. Powerscourt, who was retired prior to the Breeders' Cup, might get support for his victory in the Arlington Million.

Pleasant Home was a runaway winner of the Distaff for the Phipps family, but that was her only Grade 1 victory of the year. Will that be enough to wrest champion older filly or mare from Ashado? A distant third in the Distaff, Ashado earlier this year won three Grade 1 races - the Beldame, Go for Wand, and, ironically, the Phipps.

The Eclipse Award for champion 3-year-old filly is an inscrutable contest among the likes of Round Pond, Smuggler, Splendid Blended, and Summerly - whose campaigns ended early this year - and Sweet Symphony, who won the Alabama but failed miserably in two starts against older runners, including the Distaff.

Prado, who won the Juvenile Fillies and Sprint and rode Saint Liam to victories in the Donn and Stephen Foster, enhanced the possibility of getting a long-overdue first Eclipse Award. But he still trails John Velazquez in purse earnings. On a per-mount basis, no one has had a better year than Jerry Bailey, who won the Classic. Garrett Gomez also won two Breeders' Cup races.

Among trainers, Todd Pletcher still leads in purse earnings, but he was shut out in the Breeders' Cup and might have only one champion in Ashado. Bobby Frankel is second in purse earnings and has a certain champ in Intercontinental and a top contender in Leroidesanimaux. Dutrow also figures to get support, especially if Silver Train is voted champion along with Saint Liam. Dutrow's purse earnings were affected by a two-month suspension this summer, but he is still fourth overall with $8,760,810 through Sunday. That suspension, however, might be held against him by voters.