01/27/2004 1:00AM

Mineshaft rises to the very top


Will Farish stepped to the podium to accept the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year, took a deep breath, and said, "Wow."

That summed up the 2003 campaign of Mineshaft, the colt Farish raced in partnership with James Elkins and Temple Webber Jr. Mineshaft was an overwhelming winner for both Horse of the Year and champion older horse in results announced Monday night at the 33rd annual Eclipse Awards dinner, a black-tie affair at the Westin Diplomat Resort and Spa in Hollywood, Fla.

earned 209 of a possible 248 votes for Horse of the Year. Congaree was a distant second with 11. Mineshaft got 221 votes for champion older horse, with Congaree again finishing second with 11 votes. Votes were cast by racing secretaries and Equibase personnel from National Thoroughbred Racing Association member tracks, Daily Racing Form writers and editors, and members of the National Turf Writers Association.

The Horse of the Year award culminated a season in which Mineshaft won 7 of 9 starts, including four Grade 1 races - the Pimlico Special, Suburban Handicap, Woodward Stakes, and Jockey Club Gold Cup.

"This ranks absolutely at the top," said Farish, the United States Ambassador to Great Britain, after receiving the Horse of the Year trophy. "We bred four generations of his sire and dam. To have him turn out to be Horse of the Year is one of the most exciting things in my life."

Farish, Elkins, and Webber bred Mineshaft by mating the Mr. Prospector mare Prospectors Delite to A.P. Indy, the 1992 Horse of the Year. Mineshaft began his career in Great Britain, where he won just once in seven starts. But after being brought back to the U.S. and turned over to trainer Neil Howard, he began a steady ascension to the top of the charts in concert with jockey Robby Albarado.

Last year, at age 4, Mineshaft won the Diplomat Way Handicap at Fair Grounds, finished second in the Whirlaway Handicap in his graded stakes debut, then scored his first graded stakes victory in the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap. He was a runaway winner of the Ben Ali Handicap at Keeneland, which put him on course for nothing but Grade 1 races the rest of his career.

Mineshaft powered through a nasty rainstorm to capture the Pimlico Special to earn his first Grade 1 victory. He then was upset by Perfect Drift in Churchill's Stephen Foster Handicap while giving eight pounds (123-115) to the winner. Mineshaft marched on to Belmont Park, where he cruised to victory in the Suburban Handicap on July 5.

After getting a brief freshening, Mineshaft returned for a fall campaign at Belmont Park. He won both the Woodward Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup by 4 1/4 lengths, thoroughly dominating his rivals both times.

"Neil Howard had him at his best for every race," Farish said earlier in the evening, when he accepted the award for champion older horse. "It's truly been a fantastic ride."

Mineshaft would have been a strong favorite for the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita, but after first being noncommittal about that race, his connections retired Mineshaft, saying he had sustained a minor leg injury. Mineshaft is now at Farish's Lane's End Farm in Versailles, Ky., where he stands for a $100,000 stud fee.

"He's been incredibly well received," Farish said Monday night. "Interest was overwhelming even before he was retired." Farish said Mineshaft was scheduled to be bred to "right around 100" mares this year.

The Horse of the Year presentation brought to a close a two-hour program that was hosted by jockey Gary Stevens. There were few moments of genuine levity, but one was provided by Kenny Mayne, the ESPN broadcaster who had hosted the awards in previous years. Mayne was unable to perform that function this year because of a conflict with the Super Bowl, but he taped a segment in which he said he would "miss being around lots and lots of rich, drunk people."

Joe Pesci, the actor and co-owner of a filly named for him, snapped the audience to attention later in the evening when he arrived to present an award and mischievously said, "Hi, I'm your new neighbor."

"You're stuck with me to try to bring attention to horse racing. I'll do the best I can," Pesci said. "I've been told it's not an easy game. It's a tough game. All I know is when my horse was in the stretch other day, someone shot her in the [bleepin'] eye. She's doing fine, not that you give a [bleep]."

Jockey Jerry Bailey made the evening's most newsworthy comment, when he said he would retire either at the end of this year or next year.

The Eclipse Award of Merit was presented to Richard Duchossois for his decades of contributions to the sport, most notably the rebuilding of Arlington Park after a disastrous fire in 1985. D.G. Van Clief Jr., who presented the award to Duchossois, said Duchossois's life "is a profile in leadership and perseverance." He received a standing ovation.

Eclipse Awards for the news media were also presented, one of them to Jay Hovdey, Daily Racing Form's executive columnist, for a series of articles on jockey Bill Shoemaker that were published after Shoemaker's death last fall.

A film tribute to Shoemaker, first presented at his memorial service last October at Santa Anita, was shown again on Monday night. The film was produced by Amy Zimmerman of Santa Anita, who works on NBC's racing shows and who accepted the broadcast Eclipse Award for NBC's telecast of the Preakness Stakes.

Kent Meyer, handicapper of the year, was honored for his victory in the finals of the national championship contest last weekend in Las Vegas.

The dinner was dedicated to Joe Hirsch, the longtime executive columnist for Daily Racing Form who retired two months ago. Steven Crist, DRF's publisher, said Hirsch was best known for his "excellence, kindness, and generosity." Hirsch was not in attendance.