01/28/2003 1:00AM

Honoring divisional champs who more than paid their way


Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to fabulous Las Vegas for the third annual ROI Awards.

While the Eclipse Awards were presented to horse racing's top performers in Beverly Hills on Monday, here in Las Vegas we're always looking for value on our wagering dollar.

The glitzy stars of Thoroughbred racing often go off at odds that are too low, so instead of "substance over style," we like to think of our awards as honoring "cash over flash."

ROI stands for Return on Investment, but for the purposes of this show we'll pronounce it "Roy."

Winners were chosen in the same categories as the Eclipse Awards, capped by our ROI Horse of the Year, or our "ROI HOY."

Only horses who ran in American stakes races that attracted sizable betting pools were considered. It's great for the people who had a $200 winner in a claiming race, but we're looking to honor horses in major races who were true overlays, and who could be bet by as many people as possible at simulcast outlets.

Foreign races were not considered. This is for the everyday American horseplayer. We'll leave the black tie and mint julep crowd to their own awards. The dress code here is golf shirts and blue jeans. So grab a beer and relax.

The envelopes please . . .

Two-year-old colt or gelding: This first category illustrates what the ROI Awards are all about. Vindication was a perfect 4-for-4 in 2002 and won the Eclipse, but if you had bet $2 to win on each of his races you would have cashed for only $23.20 on $8, or an average ROI of $5.80 for every $2 wagered. That ROI was edged out by both Sky Mesa ($6.03) and this year's 2-year-old ROI champ, Whywhywhy ($6.80), because his wins paid $17 in the Grade 3 Flash at Belmont, $11.80 in the Grade 2 Sanford at Saratoga, and $5.20 in the Grade 1 Futurity at Belmont.

Two-year-old filly: Storm Flag Flying is a very deserving Eclipse winner, but her $5.25 ROI isn't too magical. Miss Houdini fit the bill, however, as she paid $19.80 when she won her maiden in July at Hollywood and then won the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante. Her ROI is $22.30 from those two races.

Older male: This category was wide open all year long and was there for the taking . . . and Volponi took it. He won an allowance race at Belmont in May, paying $3.70, and added the Grade 3 Poker at Belmont in July.

But it wasn't until he won the Breeders' Cup Classic at Arlington in October, paying $89, that he moved to the head of the class. Volponi's year-long ROI was $14.16 from eight races.

Older female: Azeri was a unanimous choice in the Eclipse voting, but her $3.38 ROI places her only fifth in our ratings. In fact, this was the tightest race in ROI Awards history. Summer Colony ($3.51), Mandy's Gold ($3.55), and Spain ($3.91) were all in the running, but the honor goes to Favorite Funtime ($4.75), thanks to her $12.40 score in the Grade 1 Santa Maria Handicap last February at Santa Anita and a $6.60 payoff in the B Thoughtful last April at Hollywood.

Male turf: Delta Form was looking like the winner in this category, based on his $43.60 score in the Grade 2 Del Mar Handicap. However, Domedriver invaded from France to steal the Breeders' Cup Mile at $54 and also claim the ROI Award. However, he had only the one start in this country, so we're making him ineligible for the ROI HOY. (Note: the precedent for this ruling was made last year when Exciting Story won the Sprint category based on his only U.S. start, a $115.50 upset in Belmont's Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap).

Female turf: Starine also wins this category on the basis of one victory, the BC Filly and Mare Turf, which she won and paid $28.40. She lost her other three races on the year, but her ROI was still $7.10 to easily outdistance Wonder Again ($5.31).

Sprinters: Orientate's $7.40 win on BC Day lifted his ROI to only $3.47 in 10 starts, and he was blown away by Snow Ridge's $11.03 ROI in six races. Snow Ridge won three stakes at Santa Anita - paying $39.20 in the Grade 3 El Conejo, $19 in the Grade 3 Palos Verdes Handicap, and $3.20 in the Grade 1 San Carlos - and added a $4.80 win in the Maryland BC Handicap at Pimlico.

His ROI would have even been higher if he hadn't been disqualified and placed second in the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Handicap.

Three-year-old filly: Farda Amiga is the only horse to win both an Eclipse and an ROI this year.

She won the Eclipse for 3-year-old fillies, and she gets our award because she was never a favorite in all of 2002. She paid $12.40 in an optional claiming race at Santa Anita, then stepped up in class and won the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs, paying $42.

She followed that with an $8.70 win in the Grade 1 Alabama at Belmont.

Her year-long ROI was $10.52 from six starts.

Three-year-old colt or gelding and ROI Horse of the Year: War Emblem was the leader in this division last spring after paying $43 in the Kentucky Derby, but by the end of the year, his ROI was just $7.14, and the horse that ended War Emblem's Triple Crown bid also took the ROI from him. Sarava finished second in his first two races in 2002, both allowance races in Kentucky, before winning the $75,000 Sir Barton at Pimlico, paying a modest $8.20. But then he paid a whopping $142.50 in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes to improve his ROI to $37.68, also earning him the ROI HOY.

Thanks for attending this year's event. And may you find value plays all year long.