01/08/2009 12:00AM

Bunkered down for winter, voting for champs

Email

WILTON, N.Y. - Here in the North Country it can snow anytime from Halloween to Easter, and it usually does quite a bit of that through the four months in between.

At six o'clock on an exceptionally foggy and wintry evening in mid-December, my Eclipse ballot was delivered; I remember thinking there really must be some truth to that old U.S. Postal Service motto, "Neither snow, nor sleet, nor gloom of night stays these courageous couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

Along with the e-ballot (new for the 2008 voting) were the Daily Racing Form past performances and statistics for all divisions. My e-votes went this way:

Steeplechase - Easy score for Good Night Shirt, who went 5 for 5 in Grade 1 races over five different courses, from two to three miles.

As an aside, DRF's Formulator was an exceptionally useful tool for handicapping the jump-ups at Saratoga, providing easy access to otherwise obscure result charts and shedding light on murky company lines of unfamiliar names. Lots of sharp players habitually avoid these races, so I'm already looking forward to finding a class standout or two at the Spa in 2009.

Two-year-olds - I gave Midshipman the edge over Vineyard Haven, but if I had to make a future-book wager on the Kentucky Derby it would be on third choice Old Fashioned.

Two-year-old fillies - It was impossible to go past Stardom Bound and her three straight Grade 1 wins, but in terms of a Kentucky Oaks prospect, second choice Rachel Alexandra is probably the better bet off her big win in the Golden Rod at Churchill Downs.

Three-year-olds - Big Brown was head and shoulders above his United States-based rivals. Raven's Pass and Henrythenavigator, one-two in the Queen Elizabeth at Ascot, and one-two again in the Breeders' Cup Classic four weeks later, filled out my trifecta.

Three-year-old fillies - This was a tough call among a handful of worthy candidates in an exceptionally deep crop. In the end, Proud Spell's yearlong campaign included a gutsy decision over Music Note in the Alabama, and I viewed that showdown as the division's definitive race. I put the ill-fated Eight Belles third, and was sorry to leave out Indian Blessing and Goldikova.

Older males - Curlin was an easy choice, winning all five of his starts on dirt and setting an earnings mark for a North American-based horse. Second choice went to Commentator, and I'm still kicking myself for not taking some of that 4-1 in the Whitney. Einstein wasn't particularly fast, but got the show spot for his versatility.

Older females - I outsmarted myself and picked against her on Breeders' Cup Day, but was happy to see Zenyatta put in her patented stretch run to cement the title. Cocoa Beach, whose only loss from four U.S. starts over four different surfaces was a placing to Zenyatta in the Ladies' Classic, completed my chalky exacta, with last year's champ Ginger Punch rounding out the top three.

Sprinter - There was no slam-dunk choice, but the retired Benny the Bull got my vote on the strength of a 4-for-4 season. He was brilliant in the Sunshine Millions, beat 14 rivals in the Dubai Golden Shaheen, and was exceptionally game running right through an inside speed bias to win the True North. Defending champ Midnight Lute made me think about this for a while off his repeat in the BC Sprint, but in the end that was only good enough for second over Fatal Bullet.

Female sprinter - Ventura and Indian Blessing held form all year, and for me it just came down to the former blowing the latter's doors off on Cup Day. Intangaroo, with Grade 1 wins in California, New York, and Kentucky, did enough to wear the crown in most years but just wasn't as fast as the top two.

Turf male - As has been the case in prior years, Conduit's win in the BC Turf trumped anything the U.S.-based horses showed throughout the season. Grand Couturier and Einstein each won a pair of Grade 1 grass races, and filled out the underneath portion.

Turf female - With Grade 1 wins at eight, nine, and 10 furlongs in Kentucky, Chicago, and New York, Forever Together was an easy choice. Goldikova's breathtaking inside move to beat defending titlist Kip Deville in the BC Mile was enough to get second over Mauralakana, who peaked in midsummer.

Trainer - 1. Steve Asmussen, 2. Rick Dutrow 3. Bobby Frankel.

Jockey - 1. Garrett Gomez, 2. Robby Albarado, 3. Rafael Bejarano.

Apprentice - 1. Paco Lopez, 2. Inez Karlsson, 3. Abel Mariano.