01/29/2003 1:00AM

Eclipse story: Stars and more


ARCADIA, Calif. - It was one of those moments that only happens in movies, or horse racing.

Bounding from his table in the center of the Beverly Wilshire ballroom to the Eclipse Awards stage last Monday night, Richard Englander found himself suddenly face to face with the guy who played the alien in one of his favorite movies.

"I loved 'Starman,' " Englander said, referring to the 1984 film, with Jeff Bridges in the title role. "I can't wait to call my wife and tell her who gave me the award."

On this particular evening, Bridges was just Jeff Bridges, on hand as part of racing's romance with the upcoming movie version of "Seabiscuit." Bridges will be playing Charles Howard, and there was a little bit of the patrician air to the actor as he introduced the nominees for outstanding owner of 2002.

Englander arrived at the podium beaming with delight, coat collar askew, having just won the award for the second straight year. Without missing a beat, Bridges reached up and deftly smoothed Englander's lapel into place, then offered his hand in congratulations. Now that's a star, man.

The rest of us leave things a little messy, hit the wrong mark, forget our lines. Prefer reality shows to finely crafted entertainment? The Eclipse Awards are for you.

For $300 a plate last Monday night, you got Bobby Frankel standing before the audience confessing that, "I'm a little bit volatile, so I need calm people behind me," as he accepted his award for outstanding trainer. Then he introduced assistants Humberto Ascanio, Ruben Loza, and Jose Cuevas, but forgot to include Sally Lundy, who supervises the Frankel stable at Santa Anita Park.

"I feel terrible about that," Frankel confessed later. "I don't know why that happened."

Having said that, he is forgiven. This time.

Thank you's are tough under such circumstances, unless they are well prepared in advance. Satish Sanan, owner of champion 2-year-old colt Vindication, came thoroughly equipped with an extensive list of credits during a speech that defied the suggested time limits. No matter. Everyone named obviously meant a lot to Sanan, and to the success of his undefeated colt, from the staff at Padua Farm to trainer Bob Baffert, and even Baffert's wife, Jill.

Apparently, though, Vindication ran around out there last year loose as a kangaroo, because at no point did Sanan choose to pause in his long list of thank you's to acknowledge that Mike Smith rode Vindication in every one of his four starts.

This was odd, especially since Richard Mulhall, racing manager of The Thoroughbred Corp., singled out Victor Espinoza for his success on War Emblem. David O'Laughlin, representing Coolmore and Michael Tabor, thanked both John Murtagh and Mick Kinane for their contributions to the championship season of High Chaparral. Even Julio Camargo, standing in the eye of the Farda Amiga hurricane, had the presence of mind to cite Chris McCarron and Pat Day for their work aboard his beloved filly.

Smith, who has been replaced aboard Vindication by Jerry Bailey, shrugged off the slight like an old pro. No big deal, especially when he ended the evening invited on stage by trainer Laura de Seroux to join the Azeri celebration for Horse of the Year.

"My second," Smith said proudly, recalling his 1994 heroics with Holy Bull.

Azeri was named on 189 ballots. War Emblem, with 12 votes as Horse of the Year, was runner-up in name only, proving once again that when left alone to read the records, Eclipse Award voters usually get it right. With few exceptions, the champions stand the test of time.

Still, the process has its embarrassing holes, especially the system of using three voting blocs - Daily Racing Form, National Turf Writers Association, and National Thoroughbred Racing Association - instead of a single, equally weighted electorate.

Richard Englander was certainly a deserving candidate as outstanding owner, winning one bloc of votes and tying for first in another. But the fact remains that he was outvoted overall, 63-42, by The Thoroughbred Corp. of the late Ahmed Salman.

The people who run the awards also should be concerned with voter turnout. A total of 294 ballots were mailed out. Only 228 were submitted.

And while a 77.5 percent rate of participation is to be admired for most elections, this one is different. This one is a privilege and an obligation, one that helps shape the legacy of the sport. The figure should be closer to 100 percent.

Such knotty mechanical problems should be simple to repair, leaving the process transparent and without potential controversy. This will allow the sport to relax and enjoy its special moments of theater at the Eclipse Awards, like the one at the end of the evening when Ricardo Simon, the tuxedoed, 10-year-old grandson of Farda Amiga's co-owner Marcos Simon, scooped up a handful of Farda Amiga confetti and tossed it in the direction of the stage.

That's where Tobey Maguire - the actor who will play Red Pollard in "Seabiscuit" - was in the process of announcing Azeri as Horse of the Year.

Maguire looked down at little Ricardo and smiled a movie star smile.

"Do you know who that is?" Ricardo was asked.

"Yes," he replied. "That's Spider-man."