01/27/2009 1:00AM

Eclipse Awards: The blow-by-blow


The boss gave me a choice. Either I fly to Florida and saddle up the old tuxedo for another Eclipse Awards dinner, or stay put in California, watch it on TVG, and lob long-range Internet observations from the sanctuary of my parents' basement while wearing my pajamas.

This, of course, was how Sarah Palin described the life of a blogger during the 2008 presidential campaign, for which she was roundly mocked. In my particular case, there was no basement - just a cabana by the Pacific - and it wasn't really even a blog, since the boss assured me that anything I wrote would be thoroughly edited and published on a 24-hour censor's delay. It was a treat, however, to be wearing pajamas at 4 in the afternoon.

I was also assisted by my daughter, Lorelei, who is 3. She attended the 2006 Eclipse Awards dinner, in utero, and even got to help her mom present an award to John Velazquez as champion jockey. To this day, she thinks his ride on Rags to Riches in the 2007 Belmont Stakes is about the finest she's ever seen, but she's not sure why. I tell her it's fetal imprinting. She reaches for the remote.

4:25 or so: The show begins, sort of, with the NTRA Moment of the Year. The big-game voice of Larry Collmus (how did he not get the Churchill Downs job?) rouses guests from their banquet troughs just long enough to watch Zenyatta win the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic on the ballroom big screens. Chewing and swallowing resume.

4:30ish: Turns out Zenyatta was the warm-up act, kind of like Hank Kingsley for Larry Sanders. Now comes the real show, with colleague Jay Privman delivering a moving tribute to Joe Hirsch, that included both a plug for Hirsch's favorite local restaurant, Joe's Stone Crab, and the news that Hirsch's extensive personal book collection is being donated to the Keeneland library. Imagine having such an impact that your name would be attached to a seafood delicacy? Hirsch had promised Lorelei he'd take her to Sardi's when she came of age. Guess that's my job now.

The Hirsch tribute is followed by a flashy opening video package that left me wondering if most of 2008 took place in black and white. Memory is a funny thing.

4:45: How about that. Neither of the 2-year-old champions are owned now by the people who raced them for most or all of 2008. Who replaces patrons like Robert McNair and Charlie Cono?

4:50 and beyond: If a picture is worth a thousand words, the Hennegan brothers push the equation when their heartfelt documentary "The First Saturday in May" is honored. Of the other worthy media awards, the disembodied heads of Vinnie Perone, Jennie Rees, and Gary Stevens look very handsome sitting atop the podium. Suggested production solutions: Apple crate, camera angle, or taller recipients. I miss Vinnie's moustache.

5:11: Pamela Weinstock, channeling Conduit, whinnies.

5:15: Jonathan Sheppard, thinking of Forever Together, smiles.

5:19: Watching the highlight reel for the Award of Merit winner, Mill Ridge Farm owner Alice Headley Chandler, Lorelei notices what the young Alice wore as a little girl and wants the same outfit. I tell her that was about 1935. Lorelei says, "So?"

5:20: Chandler, quoting her father, says, "If you take care of the horse, the horse will take care of you."

5:24: Sonny Via begins acceptance speech for his steeplechase champ, Good Night Shirt.

5:24: On another channel, "Dr. Zhivago" begins.

Later that evening: Omar Sharif collapses while chasing Lara's streetcar in Moscow. Sonny Via concludes with, "Guess what. This is what happens when you hang on."

Half past: Handicapper of the Year Richard Goodall gives the suits an earful. Sonny Via asks for equal time.

Coming on 6 o'clock: A car dealer from Arizona whose silks read "No Bull" wins another Eclipse Award for Indian Blessing, a filly he bred himself. Hal Earnhardt, is this a great game or what?

Next: Julie Asmussen is thanked by her husband for making everything he does worthwhile. Steve Asmussen also pays special tribute to exercise rider Parker Buckley, who got on Curlin, Pyro, and other stable stars before his death in August at Saratoga.

Ten after: I want to know what John Shirreffs looks like as he turns down the insistent Jerry Moss to come on stage for Zenyatta's award. Shirreffs doesn't even enter the winner's circle (blame his superstitious role model, Buster Millerick). You think John's going up there?

Moss chokes up at the thought of Zenyatta staying in the barn for a year and a half before Shirreffs brought her out for her first start, late in her 3-year-old season. Moss was not thinking about the bills - he was appreciating the craft. Shirreffs is spotted at the table wearing what looks like a brand new Mill Ridge Farm cap, right out of the wrapper, as opposed to the faded, sweat-stained Mill Ridge Farm cap he wears to work, or the wrinkled Mill Ridge Farm cap he's got stuffed in his golf bag. (Note to cynics: Shirreffs is not on any bandwagon. He was wearing Mill Ridge haberdashery long before Alice Chandler received the Award of Merit.)

6:18: Jess Jackson, quoting Alice Chandler, says, "Keep the horse first, and the horse will take care of you."

6:22: After a backstage screaming match with the hot-headed Mike Smith (I just made that up), Jerry Moss gallantly returns to the stage to add Zenyatta's jockey to his list of thank-yous, along with her original rider, David Flores.

Next scene: Smith, who also rode champion Stardom Bound, comes out with significant other Chantal Sutherland and watches in horror as she displays a complete lack of respect for modern electronic technology by jacking both microphones up and down like jet fighter joysticks and sending a shriek of feedback through the room. Those dozing awaken.

6:33: Garrett Gomez has a great dentist.

6:41:Larry Jones, dressed like the fourth Earp brother, gets to relive the Eight Belles tragedy yet again before ascending the stage as the trainer of champion 3-year-old filly Proud Spell. It turns out that his two fillies got 161 of the 242 votes cast in the deepest division of the year.

6:56: Irony is alive and well at the Fontainebleau. Jess Jackson accepts Curlin's very deserving Horse of the Year award for the second straight year and pleads with President Obama to lower his taxes. Still, the point is well taken . . . as long as any tax breaks go to equine veterinary research and Thoroughbred retirement programs.

7:07: Post-award interviews conclude and TVG hosts sign off - just in time for the 10th race from Yonkers. Lorelei is long gone, and from the next room, I hear Hannah Montana. Welcome to the future.