01/28/2003 12:00AM

Englander did it his way

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Owner Richard Englander's top runner at the moment is a horse named My Cousin Matt, a 4-year-old gelding who represents the cream of Englander's far-flung claiming empire.

Englander claimed My Cousin Matt for $85,000 last year and went on to win Sam Houston's Great State Challenge Sprint with him, which brought My Cousin Matt's earnings to more than $350,000. By Eclipse Award standards, it was a modest achievement. But My Cousin Matt and about 179 other workaday runners have carried Englander into elite company as a two-time champion owner.

When the 43-year-old stock trader from Scarsdale, N.Y., picked up his second Eclipse statuette Monday night, he joined a list of back-to-back winners that also includes Ogden Phipps, Allen Paulson, and Harbor View Farm. They all campaigned champions, but Englander's path to the summit came in a different way. He got there not by winning Grade 1 races, but by winning more races than anyone else and more purse earnings than most of his rivals.

"It's a tremendous honor," he said. "I've been going to the races since I was 13. I'm 43, and for 30 years this has been my passion."

Englander's secret is to claim many horses and place them where they can collect mid- and lower-level purses in California, Canada, Louisiana, and the mid-Atlantic states, among others. The results are impressive: In 2002, Englander led all owners with 263 wins and finished third behind Frank Stronach and The Thoroughbred Corp. with earnings of $7,092,046.

"The highlight of the year was when My Cousin Matt won at Sam Houston," Englander said. "I believed in him. I thought he was the best sprinter in the country, and he showed that he was at least one of the best."

Remarkably, Englander has reached this level after just four years in the game.

Back in 1998, when he claimed his first horse for $14,500, he spotted an opportunity in the claiming ranks' quick turnover and healthy purses, and he has exploited that niche so successfully that his income outpaces that of stables who shell out millions of dollars annually for fashionably bred horses. He has spread his horses among 18 trainers and hired three full-time employees to oversee the stable's management.

"I'd like to thank all my trainers, down to their assistant trainers and hotwalkers," he said.

"We'll keep working as hard as we can," he added after the ceremony. "Hopefully, My Cousin Matt will win some big races, and Boston Common is a nice 3-year-old sprinter. Hopefully, we'll claim some nice young horses."

That's not a strategy you hear many Eclipse Award-winning owners espouse, but that plan has put Englander at the top of the game. "It's an honor," Englander said of winning the Eclipse Award over high-caliber rivals. "These guys are big hitters. We're little guys. We're blue collar."