11/04/2004 1:00AM

Choice is clear for year's top honor


NEW YORK - When the ballots for 2003 Horse of the Year award were counted, the contest between the nation's best racehorse and a 3-year-old who had won two-thirds of the Triple Crown was not exactly a photo-finish: The final score was Mineshaft 209, Funny Cide 4. While this year's tally will be closer, the outcome will be the same, and for the same basic good reasons.

When it came time to recognize the best horse in the country last year, voters were not distracted by television ratings, popularity polls or the fact that many more occasional fans had heard of the 3-year-old than the 4-year-old. They did not confuse marketing with horse racing. They voted for the candidate who ran faster, beat better horses and accomplished more on the racetrack.

A poll of 25 prominent racing professionals conducted this week by The Blood-Horse ended 18-7 in Ghostzapper's favor. Those in his corner, including Hall of Fame trainers Ron McAnally, Bill Mott and John Nerud, cited Ghostzapper's spectacular victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic, his unbeaten record, and his versatility turning in historically fast performances from seven furlongs to 1 1/4 miles. Those who backed Smarty Jones spoke of popularity and attracting new fans to racing.

It is not necessary to knock Smarty Jones to prefer Ghostzapper, but facts are facts. Smarty Jones won his Kentucky Derby in 2:05 over a subpar group of 3-year-olds that accomplished little before or since. Ghostzapper won his Classic in 1:59 over an all-star lineup of millionaires, champions and classic winners. Ghostzapper ran the year's biggest sprint in the Tom Fool and the year's biggest routes in the Classic and Iselin. The one time he faced adversity, he won a grueling race-long duel in the Woodward despite being carried out and bumped. The one time Smarty Jones faced adversity, he ran gallantly but lost to Birdstone, a nice colt but one who could not make a dent in the Classic.

Of course Smarty Jones was the best 3-year-old and thoroughly deserves to be honored as that division's champion, but that's as far as it goes. Anything else is a maybe at best: Maybe Smarty Jones would have improved five lengths by October and been competitive in the Classic, but you can't make him Horse of the Year off that unproven possibility. A lot of equally nice 3-year-olds who won the Derby and Preakness - including Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba and Silver Charm - were properly honored with the 3-year-old championship but not Horse of the Year that season.

As Joe Hirsch, who retired last year as Daily Racing Form's executive columnist, puts it, "Ghostzapper deserves it."

Only two titles not clinched

Most of the other championships were settled last Saturday. Sweet Catomine, Smarty Jones, Ashado, Ghostzapper and Ouija Board will win divisional titles in landslides. Kitten's Joy did enough before the roughly run Turf to merit the grass male title, and Azeri's respectable fifth in the Classic probably will give her a second straight nod over Sightseek for champion older filly. The two seemingly unsettled titles are for champion sprinter and 2-year-old male, though there is a clear favorite for each.

Pico Central won his lone matchup with Speightstown in the Vosburgh, and has a 3-1 edge in Grade 1 victories. The vote may be closer than that, though, given the greater weight some voters place on the Breeders' Cup Sprint alone. Pico Central's scheduled performance in the Cigar Mile Nov. 27 is not terribly relevant but will probably sway some votes one way or another.

The 2-year-old title narrowly belongs to Afleet Alex at the moment. His 4-for-6 record with two close seconds is stronger than Wilko's 3-for-11 slate with a single important victory, but some voters may be reluctant to reward a colt who lost his final two starts of the year. If an anticipated matchup between Declan's Moon and Wilko materializes in the Hollywood Futurity, there could be a last-minute alternative.

Most of the human awards are close contests that may require some year-end results, but it seems that Todd Pletcher's time has arrived for the nod as outstanding trainer. Pletcher's dominance of New York racing for the last two years has been overshadowed by the national accomplishments of Bobby Frankel, but his two victories on Breeders' Cup day should put him over the top this year in a two-horse race with Frankel.

The best news of all? Seven of the eight Cup winners are scheduled to keep racing next year. Three of the last five Horse of the Year winners were retired by the time they were honored, but Ghostzapper will be back, and that alone is worth celebrating.