11/14/2005 1:00AM

The mighty who fell in 2005

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Many believe Ghostzapper, the 2004 Horse of the Year, was the best horse to set foot on an American racetrack in 2005. But one race isn't enough.

NEW YORK - It happens every year. Horses who were rated highly on anyone's list of preseason and early-season rankings are not among anyone's year-end choices for divisional Eclipse Awards. And that is because the course of every racing season includes detours that simply cannot be foreseen, due to injury, retirement, lack of development, and unfulfilled expectation.

Although there are still several rich and prestigious stakes races still to be run this year, with the way this season shook out, none of them are likely to have an impact on year-end championships, and that even includes the divisions in which the championship picture is inscrutable. It appears safe to begin tying the bow around the 2005 racing season.

That being the case, it might be interesting at this time to look back at a few of the horses who were highly ranked early in the year and who are now merely footnotes to the 2005 season, and wonder what might have been.

Ghostzapper: A list like this must start with him, because the 2004 Horse of the Year was unquestionably the horse to beat for that honor this year. That certainly seemed so when Ghostzapper returned from a seven-month absence in late May to be an absolutely brilliant winner of the Metropolitan Handicap. Unfortunately, Ghostzapper suffered a career-ending sesamoid injury in that race. But what he showed that day strongly suggested that it would have taken the best horse since Spectacular Bid to challenge a healthy Ghostzapper this year. In fact, Ghostzapper was so impressive in the Met Mile that a lot of people, myself included, believe that Ghostzapper was by far the best horse to set foot on an American racetrack in 2005. But of course, you can't officially honor a horse who had only one race in May.

Roses in May: When the decision was made to send Roses in May to Dubai in March for the World Cup, which he won, his connections were also choosing to concede a big chunk, if not all, of the 2005 American racing season. The evidence grows with each passing year that most American horses who journey to Dubai for the World Cup are never the same afterward, and the few who do return home and perform at an acceptable level of effectiveness usually take a long time to regain competitive form. Roses in May never raced again after the World Cup. He sustained a tendon tear while training in August. But even if he wasn't injured and was able to make it back to the races in the fall, given the long list of American horses the Dubai World Cup has rendered ineffective, the burden of proof would have been on Roses in May to show he wasn't just another addition to the list.

Southern Image: It's easy to forget about this horse, because the last time he was seen in public was in June of 2004. But Southern Image was an important horse in 2004, when his campaign was shortened to only four starts because of foot problems. He won the Sunshine Millions Classic, the Santa Anita Handicap, the Pimlico Special, and he should have won the Stephen Foster. A healthy Southern Image most certainly would have been a major figure in this year's handicap division in Southern California, a division that was decidedly up for grabs after Rock Hard Ten went on an extended hiatus through the middle of the season. Instead, Southern Image couldn't get over persistent soreness in his cannon bones, and was retired in July.

Declan's Moon: Although it might feel like it was ages ago, in truth, it really wasn't that long ago that Declan's Moon, and not Afleet Alex, was the dominant American Thoroughbred male foaled in 2002. He was last year's champion 2-year-old male, and is still undefeated. But Declan's Moon was lost for most of 2005 when he came out of a win in the Santa Catalina in March with a knee chip, and sustained another setback in September that caused him to be taken out of training. It is pure conjecture whether Declan's Moon would have successfully navigated the necessary development from ages 2 to 3, because so many don't. But here's a tantalizing thought: Unlike so many 2-year-olds who fashion flashy records at the expense of competition that subsequently proves to be weak, when Declan's Moon won the Hollywood Futurity, he beat eventual Kentucky Derby upset winner Giacomo, as well as Wilko, who had scored an upset in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile over Afleet Alex.

Sweet Catomine: A lot of people felt that Sweet Catomine was the best 2-year-old of either sex in 2004 when she was an overwhelming winner of the 2-year-old filly championship, and she entered this year as a dominant figure in her division. She did nothing to damage that ranking with wins in the Santa Ysabel and Santa Anita Oaks in her first two starts this year, then was given a crack at making a start against males in the Kentucky Derby by first getting a prep versus males in the Santa Anita Derby. Sweet Catomine finished a dull fifth, and then the stuff hit the fan when it was learned that she bled in a workout six days before the Santa Anita Derby, and was stealthily shipped to a clinic for treatment. Soon after that, Sweet Catomine's connections, stung by the criticism and in a move not unlike taking their ball and going home, retired their filly. This was a shame, because as the 3-year-old filly division evolved - some would insist "devolved" is the proper term - Sweet Catomine wouldn't have had to run any better than she had several times previous to be a dominant divisional figure once again.