01/22/2009 1:00AM

Honoring those who gave back more than they took


LAS VEGAS - Welcome to Las Vegas for the ninth annual ROI Awards.

As horse racing fans know, the Eclipse Awards will be handed out Monday night in Miami. Eclipse winners generally are star horses who go off at low odds. But here in the gambling capital of the world, we view things differently. ROI stands for return on investment, and for our purposes it refers to the average payoff you would have received if you had wagered $2 to win on each of a horse's races during the year.

Since these are meant as national awards, only horses who ran at major U.S. simulcast tracks that attracted sizable betting pools were considered, with a heavy emphasis on stakes races. All decisions of the judges (er, judge) are final.

So, without further ado, the envelopes please . . .

Three-year-old male: I like to start the show every year with a division that clearly illustrates what we're talking about. Everyone knows Big Brown had a great year, winning 6 of 7 races. But the fact is his highest win price was $6.80 in the Kentucky Derby and if you bet $2 to win on him in all seven races, you would have collected just $24.40 in the six wins for an overall ROI of $3.49 for each $2 wagered. That's a decent profit in tough economic times, but it gets blown away by Raven's Pass, the 3-year-old who won the Breeders' Cup Classic at 13-1 and paid $29.

Three-year-old female: Look at the yearly ROIs of these contenders: Goldikova ($5.60), Little Belle ($5.28), and Zaftig ($5.26). As you saw with Raven's Pass, I'm not averse to giving an ROI Award to a horse with just one U.S. start, but it has to be by a wide margin. Instead of giving it to Goldikova and her lone BC mile victory, I'm making an executive decision and awarding it to Little Belle, who made nine starts. The bulk of her earnings ($47.50) came in her upset of Keeneland's Grade 1 Ashland at 16-1, but she also had two smaller wins at Aqueduct to make her a more worthy ROI winner.

Older male: We have a similar situation here. Muhannak won the BC Marathon at $26.80 in his lone U.S. start, but I'm giving the nod to IEAH Stables' Frost Giant, who had a consistent campaign with optional claiming wins at Gulfstream at $10 and $5.20 and then topped off with an $82 score in the Grade 1 Suburban at Belmont. In all, his payouts in seven starts on the year totaled $97.20 for an ROI of $13.89.

Older female: Zenyatta was 7 for 7 on the year, with all but two of her starts being at odds-on, so her ROI was only $3.54. Still, that was almost enough to win the division, but she got beat out by Carriage Trail, who won Keeneland's Grade 3 Doubledogdare at 9-1, Saratoga's De La Rose at 3-1, and Keeneland's Grade 1 Spinster at 7-2. In all, she cashed for $39 and an overall ROI from nine starts of $4.33.

Sprinters: The Eclipse Awards split this into two categories last year, so I'm forced to hand out extra hardware here as well. In the male division, Black Seventeen had an ROI of $9.92 from five starts, with a sole victory at 23-1 in Belmont's Grade 1 Vosburgh. But he was bypassed by Desert Code, who upset the BC Turf Sprint 36-1. Desert Code also had a $12 score in a minor stakes at Santa Anita to finish with an ROI of $12.43 from seven starts. In the female division, Intangaroo blew away the competition with an ROI of $15.66 in seven starts on the strength of not only a 26-1 score in Santa Anita's Grade 1 Santa Monica but also a 14-1 win in Churchill's Grade 1 Humana Distaff, a 5-1 victory in Saratoga's Grade 1 Ballerina, and even a 9-2 win in a Santa Anita allowance race.

Turf male: Desert Code, with his $12.43 ROI, nearly pulled off a rare double by winning this category as well, but he was edged out by Spirit One, who won the Arlington Million with a mutuel of $29.40. Even with his subsequent loss in Santa Anita's Grade 1 Goodwood, his ROI was $14.70 and enough to hold off Desert Code.

Turf female: Forever Together has a chance to pull a rare (and very admirable) ROI/Eclipse double as she's a finalist for the Eclipse and she wins my honor with an ROI of $8.14 in seven starts. She won a minor stakes at Arlington at 8-1, Saratoga's Grade 1 Diana at 9-1, and threw in Keeneland's First Lady at 5-2 before winning the BC Filly and Mare Turf at 9-2.

Two-year-old male: Donativum had the highest ROI at $13.60 based on his lone win in the BC Juvenile Turf, but I'm giving the nod to BC Juvenile winner Midshipman, who not only won the Juvenile at 7-2 but also won his maiden at Del Mar at 11-1 and then won the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity at 6-1 to compile earnings of $49.40 in four starts for an ROI of $12.35 for a far more consistent campaign.

Two-year-old female and ROI HOY: Again, winners of just one race aren't eligible to win the coveted ROI Horse of the Year. You also know that Eclipse shoe-in Stardom Bound's $4.36 ROI won't cut it here. We have a very worthy ROI HOY this year as Maram went 3 for 3 and never paid under $15! She won her maiden at Saratoga at 7-1, then won Belmont's Grade 3 Miss Grillo at 6-1, and capped off a perfect campaign with an 11-1 upset of the BC Juvenile Fillies Turf. In all, her mutuel earnings of $56.40 comes to an ROI of $18.80 in three starts and she is the most consistent champion in ROI Awards history.

That's it for this year's honors. May all your bets be overlays and bring you a positive ROI.