01/23/2007 1:00AM

A little enthusiasm, please


BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Sometimes it takes bright lights, fancy dress, and wall-to-wall cable TV coverage to reveal the obvious, as was the case Monday night at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel when the Eclipse Awards ceremony made one thing abundantly clear. The American version of the Thoroughbred industry is on the verge of becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of the Middle East and its natural European ally, Austria.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Just as the game was once hoisted on the shoulders of families named Whitney, Mellon, Phipps, and Kleberg, top class U.S. racing these days would be woefully anemic without Khalid Abdullah, Frank Stronach, and the brothers Maktoum. Monday's third straight Eclipse Award for Stronach's Adena Springs breeding operation followed on the heels of three straight for Abdullah's Juddmonte Farms. Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum took trophies for Bernardini as top 3-year-old colt and for his entire American stable as co-champion owner, generously leaving the Horse of the Year title to his brother, Hamdan al Maktoum, for the brief but bracing campaign of Invasor.

In the face of such foreign dominance, there are lingering pockets of flag-waving patriots - mostly in the press - who worry over the porous nature of our Thoroughbred borders and wonder if American racing will retain any of its traditional identity. For the most part, however, the realists smell the coffee, especially when the game already relies so heavily on subsidies from casino operations, and the future rests with concessions from Native American tribes.

Still, in the narrowest sense, an evening like the Eclipse Awards can only suffer from the new dynamics of the game. Never were so many statues handed over to so many no-shows.

It was sad enough that Edgar Prado could not be in the room to accept his first Eclipse Award as best jockey, or that John Nerud could not make the trip West to personally collect his ovation and his Eclipse Award of Merit, or that Stronach was hanging with his posse in Vienna. Charlotte Weber could not be on hand for Miesque's Approval, and even the effervescent Edward Stanley (known to his peers as Lord Derby) did not deign to attend to receive one final accolade for Ouija Board.

Jimmy Bell, the general manager of Sheikh Mohammed's American operation, at least broached the no-show subject when he almost apologetically pointed out that his boss could not be there because he had a day job, which was running a country.

If the by-product of a highly internationalized Eclipse Awards is going to be a parade of proxies, telling the audience how much a person who isn't there appreciates the honor, it will be necessary for the producers of the show to hustle even harder for the liveliest possible bunch of people in front of the cameras. Business titles in tuxedos just won't cut it.

On the plus side, the freshly hatched comedy team of Laffit Pincay and Gary Stevens have officially earned a regular spot as presenters. Who knew Pincay could deadpan like Bob Newhart? Stevens is the actor and can carry the ball, but there was Laffit, cracking wise and oozing charm, both at the same time.

Jerry O'Connell, who plays a detective on the autopsy driven TV series "Crossing Jordan," is scrubbed and punctual and brings an obvious affection for the game to his role as Eclipse Awards host. But after two years, his writers have yet to provide him with either an identifiable personality or a sense of humor. It may be difficult to find another John Forsythe, Tim Conway, or Kenny Mayne to steer the show, but it might be time to try.

And they might not need to search very far. At 4-11, channeling the spirits of Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, the flamboyantly gay, Emmy Award-winning actor Leslie Jordan lit up the presentation of the turf horse awards with off-Broadway flair. His routine about once being an exercise rider for Hall of Fame trainer Horatio Luro, in Luro's twilight years, was funny enough to coax laughter from the farthest corners of the room.

"I thought the program needed a little livening up," Jordan said afterwards.

He was right, it did, but Jordan was far from a novelty act. Racing runs deep in his veins.

"Mr. Luro and his wife took me under their wings and introduced me to this wonderful sport of kings," Jordan said. "I would join them for lunch at Belmont, meet Mrs. Hancock, Mrs. Whitney. I was family, and I miss them very much.

"I've got my own series now, on HBO with Lily Tomlin, called 'Twelve Miles of Bad Road,' " Jordan added. "So I'm going to be making some money. I'm going buy me a little bit of property in Lexington and buy me some broodmares. And then someday, instead of presenting an award, I'm going to be sitting out there hoping to receive one."

In the end, the Eclipse Awards tend to get it right, honoring the highest achievements of the season past. And, like any honest convocation, it is those who bother to show up who deserve the highest praise, beginning with Roy and Gretchen Jackson on behalf of Barbaro, along with the record five tables' worth of Thor's Echo fans who embraced the evening as the only winners representing California.

So if the Eclipse Awards dinner is just not that big a deal anymore for some of the power players, maybe that's their problem. In the meantime, the fans at home who tune into the TVG telecast, as well as the people who care enough to attend, all deserve an evening to remember. Maybe it's time to cross over to a whole new Jordan.