01/22/2008 1:00AM

Leader of the pack not done


BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Steve Asmussen will tell you what he thinks, but usually only when he's asked. And since no one shoved a microphone in his face during the public ceremonies announcing the Eclipse Awards here Monday evening, he was content to be part of the giddy bunch celebrating the announcement that 3-year-old champion Curlin will be known forevermore as 2007 Horse of the Year.

Only problem is, the broad-shouldered Asmussen tends to stand out in any crowd, what with that jet black Van Dyke and set of brows to match, topped off by his razored shock of salt-and-pepper hair. Add to that a riverboat gambler's tux that made him look like a lost Maverick brother, and Asmussen certainly seemed like somebody, even though he found himself standing about as far from the podium as possible, just a couple steps from the wings. Fortunately, it did not take long for Jess Jackson, Curlin's principal owner, to beckon Asmussen to his side, correcting the order of merit.

"Horse racing is an ancient and honorable sport, characterized by the people who work in the trenches," Jackson said, lauding Asmussen and his staff.

No one argued. Ancient and honorable. How else would you describe the remarkable feat of shaping a colt, fresh from taking his maiden as the season dawned, into a classic-winning Horse of the Year while running in nothing but stakes? In Eclipse Award history, Curlin's only real precursors have been Sunday Silence, who began the 1989 season eligible for his first allowance condition before winning the Derby, Preakness, and Breeders' Cup Classic, and Tiznow, who did not make his racing debut until April of 2000 but still took the Swaps, the Super Derby, the Goodwood, and the Classic.

When the dust of the ceremonies cleared, after an event refreshingly free of either embarrassment or serious tedium, Asmussen found himself in more informal company. For some reason, the name Curlin came up.

"It doesn't take much, and right now I'm only about 12 ounces of beer away from one too many," Asmussen said, clear as a bell, "but I want to tell you about this horse. There's a thousand ways he's shown me just how smart he is. Things we needed to show him only once, and he got it. And he'd be insulted if you thought he hadn't.

"When we got him I didn't know for certain if I'd be running him in a nonwinners-of-two at Keeneland, or what," Asmussen went on. "After the Derby - in his fourth start! - he came back to the barn like he'd just worked. An experience like that, you expect them to take a long time just to want to take a drink. You don't think you might have to tranquilize them to keep them from kicking down the barn.

"People look at him, standing there in his stall, ears forward and bright, and think he wants them to come over and make friends," the trainer continued. "Don't be misled. He's got other worlds on his mind, and there's folks with the scars to prove it. He's a herd leader, the dominant one. I have seen him literally intimidate other horses just walking into the paddock."

Thank goodness, then, that Curlin will get a chance to do it again. Jackson's confirmation that Curlin would race at age 4 received the loudest cheers of the night.

"This is about a horse," Jackson said. "A horse bred to endure."

Still, the evening's most surprising revelation came when Eclipse Award-winning breeder Frank Stronach collected his second statue, for champion older female Ginger Punch, and proclaimed that "ginger tea" is his favorite beverage instead of his aggressively advertised Frank's Energy Drink, an Austrian product that promises to keep the consumer "Yodeling All Night Long." This is a good thing?

Contenders among the presenters for the night's cutest couple came down to those wacky Hall of Famers, Gary Stevens and Laffit Pincay, and the far more glamourous pairing of two-time Derby winner Carl Nafzger and Emmy Award-winning actress Kim Delaney, who was wearing what undoubtedly started out, in all good faith, to be a dress.

After presenting the awards to Shadwell Farm for champion owner and to Todd Pletcher for champion trainer, then leaving the stage hand in hand with Delaney, Nafzger was asked why they seemed to hit it off so well.

"She's a very good actress," Nafzger replied.

Pletcher, who had to settle for his fourth straight Eclipse and a large bottle of sponsor's vodka, deflected as much credit as he could.

"Any of these individual awards are about the horses," Pletcher insisted, and with three champions on the night - Rags to Riches, English Channel, and Lawyer Ron - it was easy to see why he felt that way.

In the end, it was John Nicholson, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Park, who sounded the right note in accepting a Special Eclipse Award for his organization, which honors all horses, great and small.

"A horse's value is far greater than the sum of his conformation, his value, and his sales price," Nicholson said. He was talking about John Henry, the Horse Park's most famous attraction before his death last year. But there were a lot of creatures in that category being honored Monday night.

Especially the herd leader.