01/29/2004 12:00AM

Of the losers, only Gill has legit gripe

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NEW YORK - There were no genuinely surprising winners announced Monday night at the Eclipse Awards, but some of the voting margins were either much wider or much narrower than anyone could have predicted, providing some interesting final reflections on the 2003 racing season.

Mineshaft's coronation as Horse of the Year was a foregone conclusion, but his winning tally of 209-11 over Congaree was surprisingly and commendably conclusive. Halfbridled was third with nine votes, and Funny Cide a distant fourth with just four. It was good to see that so few voters tried to punish the nation's most accomplished horse for passing the Breeders' Cup.

Mineshaft's campaign was not perfect. Those losses to Balto Star and Perfect Drift stick in the craw, his Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup victories were virtual walkovers in five-horse fields, and he never faced Medaglia d'Oro or Congaree, the next best older horses in America last year. Still, his overall campaign was the most impressive and accomplished and he fully deserved the honor.

It was gratifying that voters did not slavishly adhere to Breeders' Cup results. They honored Action This Day off his performance that day alone, but there were no truly satisfying alternatives among the 2-year-olds. On the other hand, Cajun Beat's Sprint victory did not overshadow the year-long accomplishments of Aldebaran, nor did Richard Mandella's glorious single day at the Cup deprive Bobby Frankel of a well-deserved fourth straight Eclipse after winning a record 25 Grade 1 races.

The closest vote came in the 3-year-old filly balloting, where a single change of heart would have resulted in a co-championship instead of a 98-96 squeaker for Bird Town over Six Perfections. It's difficult to get too agitated about the result either way, because no one in the division produced a satisfying championship season, but this one turned out the right way.

Six Perfections's victory over older males in the Breeders' Cup Mile may have been the best single accomplishment by a 3-year-old filly last year, but she never ran on the dirt, and American championships in non-grass divisions should go to dirt horses in the absence of an overwhelming and historic turf campaign. A single victory in an American race is fine for a grass championship but not for a title still meant to recognize excellence on the dirt.

As for Funny Cide's 150-92 triumph over Empire Maker, I will go to my grave believing that the second-best horse won the award, but the injustice is tempered by the abbreviated and disappointing nature of Empire Maker's own campaign.

Voters wishing to disapprove of Empire Maker's early retirement might have been expected to take it out on his owners, but Juddmonte Farms won both a no-brainer choice as the top breeder and a more interesting choice as the outstanding owner. Two years ago, Richard Englander and his horde of claimers edged out The Thoroughbred Corp. and its bluebloods for the honor, but this year Juddmonte walloped claiming king Michael Gill by a 102-51 tally.

Gill was the only Eclipse runner-up to issue a cranky press release, which he did Thursday morning, pointing out that he was only the ninth owner in the last 100 years to lead the nation in both victories and earnings, and wondering why he has not been embraced as a latter-day version of Charles Howard, Seabiscuit's owner.

"I can't help but think that the vote was a vote against me rather than a vote against the accomplishments," he said, and he's right.

By the numbers, his 425 victories and $9.2 million in purses were historic achievements. It's tough to compare his grove of oranges to Juddmonte's little basket of golden apples - 11 Grade 1 victories by four homebreds, and $6.2 million from just 122 starters to Gill's 2,235 - but Gill's totals were more impressive than those posted by similarly quantity-driven owners such as Englander, John Franks, and Dan Lasater in their Eclipse-winning seasons.

Gill's problem winning an Eclipse, beyond suing some of the racing secretaries and attacking some of the writers who vote, is that a lot of people assume his success is simply too good to be true. It's an unfair factor unless and until he is proven guilty of anything, but with under 25 percent of the vote he clearly has a credibility problem.

Gill said he is now "more determined than ever to set records in this sport." If he does, with no indication he is breaking any rules, it will be interesting to see if he is ever recognized for it.