01/21/2005 1:00AM

Don't let headlines spoil the party


ARCADIA, Calif. - Ignore the party poopers. Let the wet blankets grumble. Yes, even pity the fools for their lack of a fun-loving spirit, because there is absolutely nothing wrong with throwing a big black-tie and barn boots celebration, even during a time of war.

So roll out that red rug Monday night, and put aside for a few brief hours the ongoing strife that is threatening to rip Thoroughbred racing to shreds. It is time once again for the Eclipse Awards dinner, and a chance to escape the real world raging outside the gilded doors of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel ballroom.

Headlines? What headlines?

Forget about those pesky stories harping on racing's scandal du jour. If the game can survive Buddy Jacobson, Tony Ciulla, and Mark Gerard, it can weather the storms of Bicarbonate-gate.

Give the folks at the Jockeys' Guild a day off to lick their self-inflicted wounds. Besides, the public relations meltdown is nearly complete, requiring only the bootleg videotape of Wayne Gertmenian actually pushing Jerry Bailey off that ladder.

Just remember - nobody's perfect. But everyone looks great in a tux.

So big deal if Ken Ramsey, a finalist for champion owner, could take the stage while serving the final day of a suspension for his prerace transgression in Kentucky. Eugene Melnyk, proud owner of sprint award candidate Speightstown, is locked in mortal combat with racing officials on his island home of Barbados over an alleged positive drug test from a horse he raced there last March. And Frank Stronach, owner of Horse of the Year candidate Ghostzapper, never seems to be without a pack of powerful stockholders barking at his heels over the ocean of red ink at Magna Entertainment.

Guess what? It matters not, because the horses who got them to this point are pure as the driven snow, blameless, innocent, and willing to perform for their people at the drop of an oat.

It's a shame a few of them can't show up, because it is the horses who will be the real stars of the show on Monday night. The Eclipse Awards dinner affords a chance to relive the best moments provided by the best horses of the year gone by, suspending their accomplishments in rarified air and freezing them for all time.

There, on screen, will be the grand gestures by Smarty Jones in the Derby and the Preakness, the remarkable Met Mile by Pico Central, Azeri's Apple Blossom, Ghostzapper's Classic, and Ashado's unprecedented triple in the Kentucky Oaks, CCA Oaks, and Breeders' Cup Distaff.

Those households receiving signals from TVG will be in on the show from the start, beginning with Oscar-lite red carpet interviews with arriving dignitaries at 6 p.m., La-La time.

TV person to trainer: "You look fabulous. Are you nervous? Who designed your tuxedo?"

Trainer to TV person: "I've been up since 4. I got lost getting here. My wife rented this thing from Sears, I guess. And I'll tell you what . . . the pants are riding up something awful."

Magic moments. They can't be manufactured. Two years ago in Los Angeles, the Farda Amiga corner of the room erupted in a shower of confetti when the envelope was opened. In New Orleans, back in 2001, a teen-age Tyler Baze broke down in tears when his name was read by Laffit Pincay as champion apprentice. At the Palm Springs ceremony in 1998, Bob Baffert deferred to his assistants in receiving his award, then brought them on stage to share the moment.

Eclipse Award winners tend to spring from the same fertile soil, year after year, suggesting the game is reserved for franchises like Phipps, Juddmonte, Godolphin, Coolmore, Paulson, Stronach, Salman, Frankel, Lewis, and Farish.

Then, every once in awhile, the wealth is spread. Marty and Pam Wygod will be accepting their first Eclipse Award this year, for Sweet Catomine, as will Jack Wolf and partners for Ashado, and Ken and Sarah Ramsey for Kitten's Joy. Mace Siegel could have his first champion in Declan's Moon, and so could Eugene and Laura Melnyk if Speightstown gets the nod.

"Dad says I have to give the speech if we win," said Samantha Siegel, who races Declan's Moon in partnership with her father. "I hope he changes his mind. After owning horses for 40 years, he deserves to be up there."

If nothing else to enjoy the view.

"I remember the moment I was told," said David Bernstein, who was in the spotlight when the 1995 Eclipse Awards dinner took place in Washington, D.C. "I got the chills."

Bernstein, who runs a hard-knocking Southern California stable, made the most of the best horse he ever trained, and shaped a championship season in 1994 for The Wicked North as best older male. He hasn't had a horse of championship caliber since (although San Pasqual winner Truly a Judge is on a hot roll), but he still recalls the ceremony as if it happened yesterday.

"I'd stood in front of crowds before, but I'd never experienced anything like that night," Bernstein said. "It's the moment you work for, that recognition from the industry."

Time for the envelope. Please.