01/05/2005 12:00AM

Forty-five finalists named

Ghostzapper (above) and Smarty Jones are main rivals for Horse of Year, while Steve Asmussen and Todd Pletcher are top candidates for champion trainer.

Ghostzapper and Smarty Jones, considered the two leading candidates for Horse of the Year, were among the finalists in their respective divisions when the top three choices for all divisions of the 2004 Eclipse Awards were announced on Wednesday by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

Ghostzapper, the winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic, is a finalist for best older male, a division that he is certain to win, and also for sprinter, for which he is a longshot. Smarty Jones, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, is a finalist for champion 3-year-old colt.

The winners will be announced at the 34th annual Eclipse Awards dinner on Jan. 24 at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif.

The top three finalists in 10 equine and five human categories were announced on Wednesday. The finalists for Horse of the Year, however, are not announced, since that could reveal the identity of divisional champions.

But the sentiment toward Horse of the Year of the 274 voters who cast ballots this year might be reflected by the finalists in other categories. For instance, Frank Stronach, the owner and breeder of Ghostzapper, is a finalist for both champion owner and breeder, and Bobby Frankel, the colt's trainer, is also a finalist in his category.

However, Smarty Jones's connections did not make the cut. Neither Roy and Pat Chapman, whose Someday Farm bred and owned Smarty Jones, nor trainer John Servis were among the finalists in their respective divisions.

Voters are members of Daily Racing Form, the National Turf Writers Association, and racing executives from NTRA member tracks. The votes are pooled; there is no longer bloc voting, which occasionally resulted in horses without the most overall votes winning championships.

Several of the choices this year were slam dunks. Sweet Catomine, for instance, is an overwhelming favorite to be named champion 2-year-old filly. But in that category, as in all others, three finalists were announced.

Voters are asked to fill in three names per category. Only the first choice is used to determine the winner. The second- and third-place votes are used merely to determine the two other finalists, even, conceivably, in a category in which a horse received a sweep of first-place votes.

Other categories were far more difficult for voters. For instance, even though Frankel is a finalist for champion trainer and has one of the two leading candidates for Horse of the Year, he is considered an outsider for champion trainer. His rivals are Steve Asmussen, who set a single-season record for victories with 555, and Todd Pletcher, who led the nation in purse earnings and won Breeders' Cup races with Ashado and Speightstown.

Pletcher's main man, John Velazquez, is a heavy favorite to be named champion jockey over Rafael Bejarano and Edgar Prado. Conspicuous by his absence is Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey, who has won a record seven Eclipse Awards.

Ghostzapper won all four of his starts last year, ranging from the seven-furlong Tom Fool to the 1 1/4-mile Classic. That versatility made him a finalist in two categories. In the older male division, his rivals are Pleasantly Perfect, the winner of the Dubai World Cup and Pacific Classic, and Roses in May, who won the Whitney and was second in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Not making the cut was Southern Image, who won the Santa Anita Handicap and Pimlico Special but did not race the second half of the year.

Stronach (Ghostzapper) and Ken and Sarah Ramsey (Roses in May) are among the finalists for owner, but they may be overwhelmed by Michael Gill, whose claiming-based stable led the nation in earnings.

Stronach's rivals for champion breeder are Juddmonte Farms and the late John Franks.

The sprint division is one of the most hotly contested, and the announcement of a winner will be one of the hold-your-breath moments of the black-tie Eclipse Awards dinner. Although Ghostzapper is a finalist because of his Tom Fool victory, the other finalists - Pico Central and Speightstown - are considered the leading candidates.

Another hotly contested category is champion older female, where Azeri is a slight favorite over Sightseek. They split their two meetings with one another last year. The other finalist is Storm Flag Flying, who upset Azeri in the Personal Ensign.

Smarty Jones is a certainty to be named champion 3-year-old colt. The other finalists are Birdstone, who upset Smarty Jones in the Belmont Stakes and then captured the Travers, and turf specialist Kitten's Joy.

Kitten's Joy, who won 6 of 8 starts but was upset in the Breeders' Cup Turf, is the favorite to be named champion male turf horse against two Breeders' Cup winners, Better Talk Now (Turf) and Singletary (Mile).

The other finalists for 2-year-old filly against Sweet Catomine are Balletto and Runway Model, both of whom Sweet Catomine handily defeated in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Not making the cut was Splendid Blended, who won the Hollywood Starlet and was second to Sweet Catomine in the Oak Leaf Stakes.

Declan's Moon, the winner of the Hollywood Futurity, is considered the favorite to be named champion 2-year-old male. The other finalists are Afleet Alex, the winner of the Hopeful Stakes, and Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Wilko. Not making the top three were Proud Accolade, the Champagne Stakes winner, and the undefeated Rockport Harbor.

Ashado, who won the Kentucky Oaks and Breeders' Cup Distaff, is the heavy favorite to be named champion 3-year-old filly over turf specialist Ouija Board and Stellar Jayne. Not making the top three was Society Selection, who won the Test and upset Ashado in the Alabama.

Ouija Board is favored, however, to be named champion female turf runner, even though she made only one start in this country, a workmanlike victory in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf. Her rivals are Intercontinental, the Matriarch winner, and Ticker Tape, who won two Grade 1 races, the American Oaks and Queen Elizabeth II.

Hirapour, McDynamo, and Preemptive Strike are the finalists for champion steeplechase horse.

Pablo Fragoso, Brian Hernandez Jr., and Angel Quinones are the finalists for champion apprentice jockey.