01/31/2005 1:00AM

Gill: Many wins but no champ

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But for some voters - this one included - the owners' award the past two years came down to something far more basic: Gill hasn't done anything superior.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The quest to become the Eclipse Award-winning owner has become a passion for Michael Gill. For the past two years, he has expanded the number of runners competing in his familiar blue-and-white silks, and he has been one of the finalists each year for the Eclipse Award as champion owner.

Both years, though, Gill lost, and the results have left him bordering on incredulous. He, his family, and his friends sat glumly at a 10-person table last week at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel after

Ken and Sarah Ramsey were announced as the winners. Gill was not upset that the Ramseys won; he later praised them. Rather, Gill was upset he lost.

"I'm not sure what I have to do," Gill said.

He talked at length after the Eclipse Awards. Asked only one question - "What did you think of the results?" - he responded for 15 minutes, with his wife standing patiently next to him, stroking his left arm when his agitation level rose.

Gill is convinced that the Eclipse Award is another roadblock the racing industry has thrown in his path, right along with the New York Racing Association and other tracks denying him stalls, and tracks at which he has previously competed, such as Santa Anita, telling him he is not welcome again after his aggressive claiming of horses.

To be sure, Gill has not helped himself with his outspoken behavior. He is referred to as "controversial" so frequently in news coverage that you might think that's his given first name. There may be some voters - hopefully very few - who cannot keep personal feelings from clouding their judgment. They may object to Gill's brashness or his naked pursuit of the Eclipse Award.

But for some voters - this one included - the owners' award the past two years came down to something far more basic: Gill hasn't done anything superior.

The Eclipse Awards are designed to reward the most outstanding performers of the year, both human and equine. Excellence should be the cornerstone. In terms of the performances of their horses, the Ramseys in 2004 were a better choice.

Last year, the Ramseys owned a homebred turf champion in the colt Kitten's Joy, who won two Grade 1 races, including the Turf Classic against older horses. They raced Roses in May, who won the Whitney Handicap, was second in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and was one of the leading older horses in the country. And they also raced their homebred turf horse Nothing to Lose, who won the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile. Ken Ramsey's actions on Dec. 31 - when he tried to pay a rival owner to scratch a horse from a race at Turfway Park - might have affected the voting had the incident happened before the polls closed. But ballots were due Dec. 27.

Prince Khalid Abdullah's Juddmonte Farms raced Grade 1 winners Intercontinental, Light Jig, and Sightseek. Jack and Laurie Wolf's Starlight Stables raced champion 3-year-old filly Ashado and Jim Dandy Stakes winner Purge. Frank Stronach owned Ghostzapper, the Horse of the Year and champion older horse.

The Ramseys, Juddmonte, the Wolfs, and Stronach all had superior years.

Gill won so few stakes - he had only one graded-stakes win in 2004 - that he did not crack the top 12, a list that included Ed Gann, John Gunther, Bill Heiligbrodt, Bob and Beverly Lewis, Eugene and Laura Melnyk, Sam-Son Farms, the partnership of Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor, Gary Tanaka, and Marty and Pam Wygod. Those people all pursued excellence at the top level.

Gill won far more races than any other owner, and led the nation in purse earnings. But almost all that was accomplished with claiming horses.

This is not to denigrate claiming horses, nor those who own them, since they are unquestionably the backbone of daily racing programs around the country.

But it is difficult to support the theory that claiming a horse for $20,000 at Laurel and winning with him two weeks later for the same price is a superior feat, even if it happens 450 times in a year.

Gill admitted that his operation is losing money and admitted that he was the "sucker" - his word - when claiming horses, many of whom were busts, in California a year ago.

That is not the resume of an owner who has done something superior, let alone one who should be rewarded as the best. Until Gill makes a U-turn and begins to emphasize quality over quantity, he will have to settle for being a meet's leading owner, but not the sport's champion.