01/10/2008 1:00AM

Nevada a crucial battleground


At the height of this country's Civil War, Nevada was sought by the Union to help ensure the re-election of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican-controlled Congress, so it was rushed to statehood on Oct. 31, 1864 (yes, Virginia, Halloween really is a state holiday here), just eight days before the election.

It worked, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Since then, Nevada has often been a political afterthought on the national landscape. With a low number of electoral votes, especially compared to neighboring California, and with many presidential races being decided even before the polls close in the Western time zone, Nevada has rarely been a major player in national politics.

But that has been changing.

Harry Reid, who has risen to Senate majority leader in the Democrat-controlled Congress, and other Nevada power-brokers led the charge in the summer of 2006 to give Nevada a presidential caucus early in the election year to give it a more prominent role, especially to battle those in the Midwest (Iowa) and the East (New Hampshire).

So, Nevada, which is a melting pot of Americana and thus a great barometer for public opinion, will hold its caucus next Saturday, Jan. 19.

After that was announced, Iowa and New Hampshire moved up their dates to try and stay atop the pecking order of determining the Democratic and Republican front-runners, plus South Carolina is holding a Republican primary on the same day.

But something else almost marginalized the Nevada caucus. With the concurrent Republican voting going on in South Carolina, a lot of the focus here has been on the Democrats' race. However, when Barack Obama ran away with the Iowa caucus last week and the polls had him well ahead of Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary this past Tuesday, it appeared that the Nevada caucus might turn into a coronation for Obama at best (if spin doctors had their way) or a formality at worst (if seen as a foregone conclusion).

But a funny thing happened on the way to the party nomination. The polls got it wrong as Clinton pulled the upset in New Hampshire and suddenly made Nevada a crucial rubber match leading into Super Tuesday on Feb. 5.

As of deadline, most of the national discussion has been about Clinton's turnaround and the inaccuracy of the polls. But as we get into this weekend and certainly next week leading up to the Nevada caucus, more and more focus will be put on this state, and specifically the two major cities of Las Vegas and Reno.

Clinton has led recent polls in Nevada, though Obama recently secured endorsements from the powerful Culinary Workers Union (60,000 members) and the Service Employees International Union (17,500 members). I can't tell you who will win here, but the safest bet is that we'll hear an endless stream of cliches and puns on the news channels and see predictable headlines such as: "Betting their political life," "Rolling the dice," "Beating the odds," and "What happens here won't stay here."

Besides, betting on the results of the caucus isn't allowed in Nevada sports books. It falls under regulations that don't allow wagering on anything that involves votes (elections, Academy Awards, reality TV shows, MVP awards, jury verdicts, etc.).

Oscar the Mayor wins a race

Oscar Goodman, the flamboyant mayor of Las Vegas, is used to winning. He did it often as a defense attorney and has been on a winning streak since entering politics.

Skeptics scoff when they hear of his 80 percent approval rating, but that's not some exit poll or biased survey. He was elected to his third term as mayor last April by garnering a whopping 84 percent of the vote.

And now Oscar the Mayor has won his maiden. No, not the mayor himself, but the horse he owns and named after his favorite person. Oscar the Mayor won in his sixth career start in the eighth race, a maiden special weight, at Golden Gate Fields on Dec. 29. Goodman owns the 3-year-old with Steve Taub, a former car dealer who has owned horses for more than 20 years (wait, a partnership between a car dealer and a politician? Nah, too easy). Taub used to own Imperialism, the partially blind horse who finished third in the 2004 Kentucky Derby.

Oscar the Mayor ran the six furlongs in 1:09.09 and returned $6.60.

Handicapping Eclipse Award voting

The Eclipse Awards are to be handed out Jan. 21 in Beverly Hills. The ballots of the three voting blocs (Daily Racing Form, National Thoroughbred Racing Association, and National Turf Writers Association) were due Jan. 2, and the names of the top three vote-getters in each category were released.

The winners won't be announced until the ceremony, but that hasn't kept people from speculating on the results. John Avello, director of race and sports book operations at Wynn Las Vegas, went a step further in polling some voters and posting his odds (for entertainment purposes only due to the gaming regulations cited above) this past week.

Avello sees most races as walkovers, with Rag to Riches 1-20 to win for 3-year-old female, Curlin 1-9 for 3-year-old male, War Pass 1-9 for 2-year-old male, Indian Blessing 1-5 for 2-year-old female, Midnight Lute 1-5 for male sprinter, English Channel 1-5 for male turf horse, and Good Night Shirt 1-9 in the steeplechase category.

In the tighter races, the oddsmaker has Lawyer Ron (4-5) winning best older male over Invasor (5-2), Ginger Punch (4-5) edging out Nashoba's Key for older female, Maryfield (6-5) a lukewarm choice over Dream Rush (7-5) for female sprinter, and Lahudood (4-5) over Nashoba's Key (6-5) for female turf horse.

In the human categories, Avello has Garrett Gomez 1-20 to win for jockey, Joseph Talamo 1-9 for apprentice jockey, Adena Springs 1-4 as best breeder, Shadwell Stable (4-5) edging Stronach Stables (even) for owner honors, and Todd Pletcher (4-5) over Steve Asmussen (even) for top trainer.

Curlin is 1-5 to win Horse of the Year.