01/20/2004 1:00AM

The envelope (full of cash), please


Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas for the fourth annual ROI Awards.

The Eclipse Awards will honor horse racing's best from 2003 on Monday night in Florida, but here in Vegas we're constantly looking for higher payoffs than most of those champions pay.

ROI stands for Return on Investment, but for the purposes of this show we'll pronounce it "Roy." I've always maintained that if Patrick Roy can claim his last name is "waaa," then ROI can be pronounced "Roy."

Winners were chosen in the same categories as the Eclipse Awards, capped by my ROI Horse of the Year, or my ROI HOY. Only horses who ran in American stakes races that attracted sizable betting pools were considered. I'm looking to honor horses who were true overlays, and who could be bet by as many people as possible at simulcast outlets. Thus, foreign races are not included.

Without further ado, the envelopes, please:

Three-year-old colt or gelding: This category illustrates what the ROI Awards are all about. Consider the three Eclipse finalists. Funny Cide paid $27.60 in the Kentucky Derby and $5.80 in the Preakness. That total return of $33.40 in eight races comes to only a return on investment of $4.18 for every $2 wagered. Empire Maker never paid more than $6.20 and had an overall ROI of $2.55. Ten Most Wanted won the Travers at $7.50 and the Illinois Derby at $6.60, but his other two wins were as an odds-on favorite, and finished the year at a barely profitable ROI of $2.05. The ROI Award easily goes to Buddy Gil, who paid $55.40 in winning the Grade 3 Baldwin, $21.60 in the San Felipe, and $14.60 in the Santa Anita Derby. In five races, his ROI was a very impressive $18.32 to blow away his more highly regarded competition.

Two-year-old colt or gelding: There were many quality contenders in this division, including Silver Wagon ($10.77) and Eurosilver ($10.20), but they skipped the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and that's where Action This Day bypassed them all with his win at $55.60. Coupled with his maiden victory at $4, that improved his ROI in three starts to $19.87.

Two-year-old filly: Halfbridled will undoubtedly win the Eclipse in this category with her 4-for-4 record and impressive victory in the BC Juvenile Fillies. Her ROI was a decent $5.90, but our award goes to Society Selection, who won her maiden at Saratoga at $37.80 and then won the Grade 1 Frizette at Belmont, paying $18.40 for an overall ROI of $18.73 in her three races.

Older male: This division had a lot of quality runners this year, but most of them racked up wins at short prices and thus had low ROI's: Candy Ride ($5), Perfect Drift ($3.93), Aldebaran ($3.91), Mineshaft ($3.57), Congaree ($1.90), Medaglia D'Oro ($1.72). Pleasantly Perfect had just one win this year as a favorite, then won the Breeders' Cup Classic at $30.40 to improve his yearlong ROI to $8.80 and steal the show.

Older female: This division was also dominated by chalk-eaters, with Azeri and Sightseek getting most of the accolades, but their ROI's were only $2.08 and $1.58. In the end, it was Adoration who won my adoration with an $83.40 win in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, giving her an ROI of $17.56 from five starts.

Sprinters: There were many candidates in this wide-open field, with A Huevo ($8.53), Harmony Lodge ($8.09), Smooth Jazz ($8), and Valid Video ($7.43) all having decent ROI's, but they were edged out by BC Sprint winner Cajun Beat. His $47.60 payoff on Cup Day certainly helped, but he also had three other wins on the year, including the Kentucky Cup Sprint in which he returned $17.20. In his nine races, he had an ROI of $8.69 to nose out the competition.

Male turf: Speaking of close finishes, if High Chaparral had won the BC Turf photo, his backers would have received $11.80 for his only U.S. start. If Johar had won outright, he would have paid $30.40 and had an ROI of $9.25. Neither of them, however, would have caught Whitmore's Conn, who won the Bowling Green Handicap at Belmont at $25.60 and the Sword Dancer at Saratoga at $51.50 to help compile a six-race ROI of $12.85.

Female turf: The ROI Awards Committee always pulls for horses who win graded stakes at long prices but aren't considered household names. Film Maker fills the bill this year, returning $20 in the Grade 3 Lake George at Saratoga and $25.20 in the Grade 2 Queen Elizabeth II Cup at Keeneland. Along with maiden and allowance wins, her ROI was a respectable $6.33 in nine races. But the nod in this category still has to go to Six Perfections, who paid $12.60 in her only U.S. start, the Breeders' Cup Mile vs. the boys.

Three-year-old filly and Horse of the Year: From the mumbling in the crowd, I can tell what you're thinking: "The last category always includes the ROI HOY. Could it be true that Six Perfections becomes the first in the history of the ROI Awards to win two different categories and also the ROI HOY?" Well, her $12.60 ROI certainly makes her worthy in this category, but the upset goes to Buy the Sport on the strength of her Grade 1 Gazelle victory at Belmont. She returned $98 that day, and despite losses in the Beldame and the Breeders' Cup Distaff, Buy the Sport had an ROI of $32.67 and walks off with the 3-year-old filly division as well as the ROI Horse of the Year honor.

That concludes our show. Thanks to everyone for coming. Please tip your waitresses. And remember that what happens here, stays here.