12/23/2004 12:00AM

This corner's best of 2004


NEW YORK - I'm making a list and checking it twice, to see who was a champ and who was just nice in 2004. One man's Eclipse ballot:

Two-year-old colt or gelding: 1. Declan's Moon; 2. Afleet Alex; 3. Wilko. With reservations. Champion 2-year-olds shouldn't duck the Breeders' Cup, and it would be nice if they'd set foot outside California. Still, Declan's Moon beat Wilko and Proud Accolade, both of whom beat Afleet Alex, so that's that.

Two-year-old filly: 1. Sweet Catomine; 2. Sense of Style; 3. Balletto. If this one isn't unanimous, there should be an investigation.

Three-year-old colt or gelding: 1. Smarty Jones; 2. Birdstone; 3. Kitten's Joy. If Birdstone had won the Breeders' Cup Classic, he would have deserved this title and Horse of the Year, but he didn't so he doesn't. These divisional titles are really not intended for grass horses, but there's no clear third choice, and Kitten's Joy deserves a mention among the best of his crop.

Three-year-old filly: 1. Ashado; 2. Ouija Board; 3. Stellar Jayne. See above for thinking on Ouija Board, a genuine champion on grass. Champion 3-year-old fillies in America are made in races such as the Kentucky Oaks, CCA Oaks, and Breeders' Cup Distaff - and Ashado won all three.

Colt, horse, or gelding, 4-year-old and up: 1. Ghostzapper; 2. Pleasantly Perfect; 3. Southern Image. This really was a pretty strong group this year - also-rans include Roses in May, Medaglia d'Oro, Peace Rules, and Funny Cide - and there's no question Ghostzapper was the best of them all.

Filly or mare, 4-year-old and up: 1. Azeri; 2. Sightseek; 3. Storm Flag Flying. That's just the way they finished in the Go For Wand on Aug. 1, and nothing changed after that. Sightseek may well have been as good as Azeri, but Azeri gets the edge for winning her three Grade 1's at different tracks and not exclusively at Belmont.

Sprinter, 3-year-old and up: 1. Pico Central; 2. Speightstown; 3. Ghostzapper. Pico Central's 3-1 edge on Speightstown in Grade 1's and his victory in their lone meeting make him the deserving choice. Off his Tom Fool, Ghostzapper might have been the year's best sprinter as well as router, but he only sprinted once.

Male turf horse, 3-year-old and up: 1. Kitten's Joy; 2. Better Talk Now; 3. Leroidesanimaux. Better Talk Now won his only face-off with the likely champion but was 1 for 7 otherwise, whereas Kitten's Joy was 6 for 7 otherwise.

Female turf horse, 3-year-old and up: 1. Ouija Board; 2. Wonder Again; 3. Intercontinental. Another case for unanimity. Ouija Board won the English Oaks, Irish Oaks, and Filly and Mare Turf, and her lone loss of the year was an excellent third to males in the Arc de Triomphe.

Breeder: 1. Frank Stronach; 2. Juddmonte Farms; 3. Phipps Stable. In a category that might be better judged by a panel of bloodstock experts, Stronach seems deserving of the nod for topping the money leaderboard by a wide margin and breeding the likely Horse of the Year.

Owner: 1. Michael Gill; 2. Ken and Sarah Ramsey; 3. Frank Stronach. With a $3 million lead in earnings and nearly four times as many victories as any other owner in the top 20 in earnings, Gill may have finally muscled his way in here - especially in the absence of an obvious choice among the stakes-based owners. The Ramseys had a wonderful year with Roses in May, Kitten's Joy, and Nothing to Lose, but all of them lost on Cup Day.

Trainer: 1. Todd Pletcher; 2. Steve Asmussen; 3. Bobby Frankel. Pletcher's two Breeders' Cup victories and national earnings lead trump Asmussen's record number of victories and another strong year for Frankel.

Jockey: 1. John Velazquez; 2. Edgar Prado; 3. Alex Solis. Same rationale as the trainer award. Solis and Jerry Bailey deserve "incompletes" for a high rate of success in injury-shortened seasons.

Apprentice jockey: 1. Pablo Fragoso; 2. Brian Hernandez Jr.; 3. Jamie Spencer. Fragoso has proven he will be an important member of the New York colony for years to come and rode on a tougher circuit than Hernandez, who had more victories. Spencer may not technically be an apprentice, but he sure rides like one in this country.

Horse of the Year: 1. Ghostzapper; 2. Smarty Jones; 3. Ouija Board. Ghostzapper's Tom Fool, Iselin, Woodward, and Classic make up a much stronger body of work than Smarty Jones's Derby and Preakness, and this award should have nothing to do with turnstile counts and television ratings. The best and fastest horse doesn't always capture the public's imagination but should be the Horse of the Year.