01/08/2009 1:00AM

Curlin leads Eclipse Awards finalists

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Barbara D. Livingston
The 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin, here with Carlos Rosas at Saratoga, is one of three finalists for the 2008 Eclipse Award in the older male category. The finalists in each category were released Thursday.

Big Brown, Curlin, and Zenyatta, who dominated the headlines in 2008 and are the likeliest candidates to be Horse of the Year, are among the finalists for Eclipse Awards in their respective divisions, but there were several surprises, and one omission, when the three finalists in each division were announced on Thursday by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

Curlin is one of three finalists, and is the prohibitive favorite, for champion male horse. His trainer, Steve Asmussen, is a finalist for champion trainer, and is a heavy favorite in that division. Curlin's rider, Robby Albarado, is also a finalist for champion jockey.

But Curlin's majority owner, Jess Jackson, was not among the finalists for champion owner, even though he campaigned the horse thought to have the best chance to be named Horse of the Year, a title Curlin won in 2007.

Instead, voters cited Godolphin Racing, IEAH Stables, and Stronach Stables as the three finalists for champion owner. Godolphin campaigned Eclipse finalists Cocoa Beach and Music Note, IEAH was the majority owner of Big Brown and won 11 Grade 1 races, and Frank Stronach led the nation's owners in purse earnings for most of the year until being passed in the final days by Ahmed Zayat, who also failed to make the top three. Jerry and Ann Moss, the owners of Zenyatta, also were not among the finalists.

The Eclipse Award winners will be announced at a black-tie dinner Jan. 26 at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach Hotel in Florida. On Thursday, the top three vote getters in 16 divisions - 11 for horses, five for humans - were announced as the finalists. The only category in which finalists were not announced was Horse of the Year, so as to not tip off who won divisional honors.

The votes are cast by members of the three sponsoring organizations of the Eclipse Awards - the NTRA, the National Turf Writers Association, and Daily Racing Form. According to Jim Gluckson, a publicist with the NTRA, 242 people voted this year - 131 turf writers (out of 149 who were sent ballots), 58 racing secretaries and Equibase members (out of 74) who make up the NTRA bloc, and 53 employees (out of 59) from Daily Racing Form.

Curlin was the 2007 Horse of the Year. In 2008, he won the Dubai World Cup, Stephen Foster Handicap, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup, to rank as a virtual cinch to be named champion older male. The other finalists in that division are Commentator, who won the Whitney, and Einstein, who won the Clark Handicap. Among those not cracking the top three were Go Between, Heatseeker, and Well Armed.

Big Brown, whose biggest wins were in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, seems certain to be named champion 3-year-old male. The other finalists in that division are Colonel John, who won the Santa Anita Derby and Travers, and British-based Raven's Pass, who captured the Breeders' Cup Classic in his lone start in the United States.

Zenyatta won all seven of her starts in 2008, including the BC Ladies' Classic, making her the overwhelming favorite to be named champion older female. She also is considered the most likely challenger to Curlin for Horse of the Year. Zenyatta's divisional rivals are two horses she soundly defeated in 2008 - Cocoa Beach, who won the Beldame, and Ginger Punch, the defending champion in this category.

Asmussen's far-flung operation won a record 622 races in North America in 2008, and led the nation with $24,235,247 in North American purse earnings. He is favored to win his first Eclipse Award. The other finalists for champion trainer are Richard Dutrow Jr., who trained Big Brown, and Bobby Frankel, who led all trainers with 13 Grade 1 wins in 2008. Not among the finalists is John Shirreffs, who trains Zenyatta and also won major races last year with Madeo and Tiago.

While Albarado is a finalist for champion jockey, he is not likely to dethrone Garrett Gomez, the 2007 Eclipse Award-winning jockey, whose mounts won $23,344,351 in 2008 to lead the nation. The other finalist is Rafael Bejarano, who led every meet at Del Mar, Hollywood Park, and Santa Anita in 2008. Not making the cut were Kent Desormeaux, Big Brown's jockey, and Mike Smith, who rode Zenyatta.

There is great depth, tinged with sadness, over the finalists for champion 3-year-old filly. Eight Belles, who suffered fatal injuries after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby, is a finalist but is a decided underdog to both Music Note and Proud Spell. Music Note won the Coaching Club American Oaks and Gazelle and beat Proud Spell in the Mother Goose, but Proud Spell outfought Music Note in the Alabama after earlier capturing the Kentucky Oaks. Not making the top three was Indian Blessing, who won three Grade 1 races, including the La Brea the final week of the year.

Indian Blessing is, however, a finalist for champion female sprinter. Ventura, who beat Indian Blessing in the BC Filly and Mare Sprint, and Intangaroo, who won Grade 1 races in California, Kentucky, and New York, are the other finalists.

Breeders' Cup winners are prominent among the finalists in several other categories.

Forever Together, who won the BC Filly and Mare Turf, and Goldikova, who beat males in the BC Mile, are joined by Matriarch winner Cocoa Beach as finalists for champion female turf horse. Not making the top three was the versatile Ventura, who won the Just a Game.

Midshipman, the BC Juvenile winner, is favored to be named champion 2-year-old male. The other finalists are Old Fashioned, who won the Remsen, and Vineyard Haven, winner of the Champagne. Pioneerof the Nile, the CashCall Futurity winner, did not make the top three.

Stardom Bound is a prohibitive favorite to be named champion 2-year-old filly following a campaign that included a victory in the BC Juvenile Fillies. Her rivals are Dream Empress, who won the Alcibiades and was second in the BC Juvenile Fillies, and Maram, who won the BC Juvenile Fillies Turf. Not making the top three was Laragh, who won the Hollywood Starlet.

Midnight Lute, who only raced twice in 2008 and scored his only victory in the BC Sprint, is a finalist for champion male sprinter along with Benny the Bull, who won all four of his starts, and Street Boss, whose biggest win came in the Bing Crosby Handicap. Midnight Lute was the Eclipse Award-winning sprinter in 2007, following a BC Sprint victory that year. Among those not making the top three were Malibu winner Bob Black Jack, Bustin Stones, and Cost of Freedom.

Conduit, the BC Turf winner in his lone start in the United States, is a finalist for champion male turf horse along with Einstein, who won the Turf Classic at Churchill Downs and the Gulfstream Park Turf, and Grand Couturier, who won the Sword Dancer and Joe Hirsch Turf Classic. Not making the top three, in a division in which voters could have gone many directions, were Champs Elysees, the Hollywood Turf Cup winner, and Kip Deville, who won the Maker's Mark Mile and was second in the BC Mile.

Good Night Shirt, who won all five of his starts in 2008, is a slam dunk to win his second straight Eclipse Award as champion steeplechase horse. The other finalists are Be Certain and Sovereign Duty.

Stronach's Adena Springs, which led the nation's breeders in purse earnings, is a finalist for champion breeder along with Stonerside Stable and WinStar Farm. Not making the top three was Juddmonte Farms, which tied WinStar for most Grade 1 winners - five - in 2008.

Inez Karlsson, Paco Lopez, and Abel Mariano are the finalists for champion apprentice jockey. They were the top three apprentices in races won in 2008.

2008 Eclipse Awards finalists

2-year-old male 2-year-old filly 3-year-old male 3-year-old filly
Midshipman Dream Empress Big Brown Eight Belles
Old Fashioned Maram Colonel John Music Note
Vineyard Haven Stardom Bound Raven's Pass Proud Spell
Older male Older female Male sprinter Female sprinter
Commentator Cocoa Beach Benny the Bull Indian Blessing
Curlin Ginger Punch Midnight Lute Intangaroo
Einstein Zenyatta Street Boss Ventura
Male turf horse Female turf horse Steeplechase horse Owner
Conduit Cocoa Beach Be Certain Godolphin Racing
Einstein Forever Together Good Night Shirt IEAH Stables
Grand Couturier Goldikova Sovereign Duty Stronach Stables
Breeder Trainer Jockey Apprentice jockey
Adena Springs Steve Asmussen Robby Albarado Inez Karlsson
Stonerside Stable Richard Dutrow Jr. Rafael Bejarano Pascacio Lopez
WinStar Farm Bobby Frankel Garrett Gomez Aberl Mariano

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Divisional winners and Horse of the Year to be announced Jan. 26 at the Eclipse Awards ceremony at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach Hotel.