02/19/2002 12:00AM

How did he do it? Volume!

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Richard Englander took an unusual path to his Eclipse Award as 2001's leading owner. A 41-year-old stock-trader who only acquired his first racehorse in 1998, Englander did not break into the game with a $1 million yearling purchase at Keeneland or Saratoga. He went looking for immediate action, and he thought he'd found it with a $14,500 Laurel claimer named Virginia Punch.

Virginia Punch didn't turn out to be much, failing to win for her new owner, but she did fulfill one of Englander's goals when he bought her: to get an owner's pass to the track.

"I got to a point in my life where I was paying my bills and had a little money left over," Englander said. "My passion was always horse racing, and my dream was to have a horse. I thought I could break even and have a good time."

But in the three years since that first claim, Englander did something that anyone in racing will tell you is almost impossible. He shot to the top of the owners' ranks, winning more races (399) and more purse money ($9,656,383) than anyone, leaving the prestige outfits floundering in his wake. His nearest rival, The Thoroughbred Corp., was still almost $2 million short of Englander's earnings mark, even with Horse of the Year Point Given carrying its colors.

Englander's year included wins by scores of claimers, but he also got some limelight with stakes-winners Elektraline and A Lot of Mary.

Englander's rise is a testament to an often-neglected attribute in racehorse ownership: a highly efficient business sense. Rather than skimming the million-dollar cream off the yearling market and being forced to wait for the horses to mature, Englander has focused on racing's quickest action, the claiming game. Claimers already have past performance line and a ready market, facts that appealed to Englander's stock-trading sensibility.

Englander's operation grew rapidly to more than 150 horses competing in the mid-Atlantic states, California, Canada, Louisiana, and elsewhere. He employs more than a dozen trainers headed by Scott Lake, has three full-time employees to manage the growing business, and a computer system to analyze the operation. On average, claimers don't make nearly as much money as stakes horses. But in Englander's case, a huge well-managed stable had a far greater payoff than most owners ever enjoy.

Englander collected the statuette from Breeders' Cup chairman D. G. Van Clief, Jr.

"I really thought we had a good shot, because numbers-wise we led the nation in earnings and wins, and we had a good in-the-money and win percentage," Englander said. "I'm very happy that our accomplishments were recognized. Owners like us who are running six to seven horses a day around the country, from $5,000 claiming to stakes races, don't get a lot of attention."