10/15/2004 12:00AM

Eight alive for Horse of Year

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Kitten's Joy, if all goes just right, could end up Horse of the Year.

NEW YORK - A graphic artist trying to get an early start on designing next year's American Racing Manual recently asked who the likeliest candidates are to be the 2004 Horse of the Year, whose picture will appear on the cover. I told him to wait until sundown Oct. 30 to spend much time on it, but he would probably be safe if he limited himself to chasing down pictures of eight horses: Azeri, Birdstone, Funny Cide, Ghostzapper, Kitten's Joy, Pleasantly Perfect, Roses in May, and Smarty Jones.

Five of those will be facing off in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and four of them would present pretty compelling cases for the biggest Eclipse Award with a decisive victory. Pleasant Perfect would be winning his third Grade 1, 10-furlong race to go along with the Dubai World Cup and Pacific Classic. Ghostzapper and Roses in May would be undefeated for the year with a Woodward or a Whitney, respectively, as well as the big one. Birdstone would have beaten that fine trio of elders and edged past Smarty Jones again by adding a Classic victory to his Belmont and Travers.

Funny Cide would have finished the season with a flourish, taking the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Classic, but a 3-for-9 season record will not quicken the voters' blood. That result, or a Classic upset by none of the above, would send voters looking in the three other plausible directions for this year's top honor: Azeri, Kitten's Joy, and Smarty Jones.

Azeri could be Horse of the Year again without running in the Classic. A quartet of Grade 1 victories - the Apple Blossom, Go for Wand, Spinster, and Distaff - could leave her as the season's most accomplished racehorse, the way she was in 2002 when she stayed within her division and still beat out the spottier campaigns of Left Bank, Volponi, and War Emblem.

Then there's Kitten's Joy, an unusual but not unprecedented possibility under a similar default scenario. If the Classic ends in chaos and he runs as well as he did in the Joe Hirsch, beating older horses and Europeans in the Turf, he could join All Along in 1983 and Kotashaan in 1993 as the only all-grass Horse of the Year winners since the Eclipses were instituted in 1971. The Turf would be Kitten's Joy's third Grade 1, on top of five Grade 3 victories, and he would have won at a vast variety of tracks.

There's an interesting subplot involving Kitten's Joy and the 3-year-old championship. The word "dirt" does not appear in the "champion 3-year-old colt or gelding" title, and there has already been some lively discussion about whether Kitten's Joy should be in the running for that title. It's an ambiguous area, but the intention and tradition of the awards seems to have been for the divisional titles to reward dirt success. When All Along was Horse of the Year in 1983, she was not the champion older filly - Ambassador of Luck was. Similarly, Bertrando was the champion older male when Kotashaan won the big prize in 1993.

If the five Classic favorites, Azeri, and Kitten's Joy all fail at Lone Star, the biggest beneficiary would be Smarty Jones. He is sure to get some Horse of the Year votes anyway from those who confuse the Eclipse Awards for racing accomplishment with the Turf Publicists of America's "Big Sport of Turfdom" prize for generating good will and publicity.

A seeming shoo-in for Horse of the Year at the top of the stretch at Belmont on June 5, Smarty Jones would now have to get lucky the way Charismatic did in 1999, when a chaotic Breeders' Cup Day left a reluctant electorate no compelling alternative to bestowing the top prize on a horse with just two Grade 1 victories and none since the middle of May. That year, Daylami was the more impressive racehorse, but voters shied away from rewarding a European with American racing's top honor, and it was pretty hard to make a Horse of the Year case for that season's other champions - Anees, Chilukki, Silverbulletday, Victory Gallop, Beautiful Pleasure, or Artax.

Interestingly, while all nine horses since Affirmed who won the Derby and Preakness but failed in the Belmont were champion 3-year-old, only two were Horse of the Year that season: Charismatic and Sunday Silence. Spectacular Bid lost the title to Affirmed in 1979, Pleasant Colony to John Henry in 1981, Alysheba to Ferdinand in 1987, Silver Charm to Favorite Trick in 1997, Real Quiet to Skip Away in 1998, War Emblem to Azeri in 2002, and Funny Cide to Mineshaft in 2003.

You'll be able to tell the Smarty Jones fans at Lone Star a week from Saturday: They'll be the ones rooting for Tamweel in the Distaff, Request for Parole in the Turf, and a dead heat between Newfoundland and Perfect Drift in the Classic.