Updated on 09/17/2011 11:16PM

A night of hits . . . and a few misses

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Greg Gilchrist (left) and Harry Aleo react after Lost in the Fog was named champion sprinter.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - William Warren was headed out the door of the Beverly Wilshire ballroom late Monday night, long after he had accepted the golden trophy for Horse of the Year, when he spotted Chuck Zacney walking his way, wearing his wild Arkansas Derby tie and carrying an armload of Eclipse dinner programs.

Could this be it? At long last, the throwdown between the camps of Saint Liam and Afleet Alex, the two most celebrated horses of 2005, in a contest that never had a chance to be decided on the racetrack.

Instead, there was Warren, extending his hand, and Zacney, like a kid meeting the president, beaming in the glow of Warren's heartfelt praise.

"I just wanted to say how much I admire you and your partners for the charitable work you've done," Warren said, referring to the childhood cancer research fund that rode on the coattails of Afleet Alex during the year. "Thank you."

It was that kind of evening, full of sweetness and light - with one tone-deaf exception - as the winners of the 2005 Eclipse Awards stepped up to accept the plaudits of the industry and give credit where credit was due.

The winners made for a balanced meal of familiar faces - including Beverly Lewis for Folklore, Dinny Phipps for Smuggler, and John Chandler for Intercontinental - mixed with nouveau winners, their tables erupting with cheers and hoo-ahhs every time the name of their champion was mentioned. After a while, the sounds took on their own personalities - the blissfully feminized crackling for Ashado, the table-thumping growls of delight for Saint Liam, a picnic mix of voices raised by the Cash Is King Stable for Afleet Alex - and you knew who they matched without hearing the horse's name.

At times the ballroom stage literally groaned under the weight of extended families - Merv Griffin introduced his Stevie Wonderboy entourage as "the Mormon Tabernacle Choir" - while on other occasions the spotlight fell on a lone wolf, like 85-year-old Harry Aleo, who took home the champion sprinter award for Lost in the Fog.

"I never imagined ending up at something like this," Aleo said as he scanned the glittery ballroom. "But now that I've been to one of these, I'm determined to come back next year."

Through it all, host Jerry O'Connell managed to maintain a graceful enthusiasm for the proceedings, getting off a few good zingers (the John Deere-Hollywood Park turf course crack hit home) and surviving the clunkers (the name of "Dr. G," ousted leader of the Jockeys' Guild, did not belong in the same punchline as Eclipse Award of Merit winner Penny Chenery).

It was the 80-year-old Griffin, however, who showed everyone how this sort of thing is done, ad-libbing while presenting the award to Saint Liam ("Why'd they ask me to do the older male?" he said, feelings hurt) and announcing the name of older female champ "Ashado" with guttural samurai flair.

Larry King, horseplayer extraordinaire, delivered the same Danny Kaye story he told at the 2004 Eclipse dinner before presenting the 2-year-old championship trophies. Then, when Merv & Co. hit the stage for Stevie Wonderboy, it became dueling talk shows, with Griffin on the muscle and King leaning on the podium, basically interviewing each other.

"There's my jockey, Garrett Gomez," Griffin said. "The only jockey who's ever ridden Stevie Wonderboy - except for me, once, in the middle of the night. That's why he's swaybacked." He's not, really.

"Great jockey, Gomez," King said. "I hear your horse wears sunglasses."

"No, what, sunglasses?" Merv was stumped.

"You know, Stevie Wonder," King said, forced to explain the gag.

At one point, trainer Doug O'Neill found himself standing between the two showbiz legends, trying hard not to look like the long-lost son of Arthur Treacher and Ed McMahon.

"I choked," O'Neill said later. "You always think of something to say after it's too late. I should have just given them a good 'Hey-oooo.' " McMahon, eat your heart out.

Among the other memorable moments were these:

* Emma-Jayne Wilson, Canadian to the core, accepting her apprentice jockey trophy with a "good company, I must say" and thanking her horses as "the ones who carried me here."

* John Chandler, Juddmonte's American point man, giving all the credit to the broodmare Hasili, producer of champions Intercontinental and Banks Hill, as well as Eclipse finalist Heat Haze. "A mare like her - that's how you win Eclipse Awards," Chandler said.

* Tim Ritchey, still talking about training Afleet Alex as if it were a dream, took pains to acknowledge the work of his assistant trainer, Rocky Romero, and the colt's exercise rider, Solomon Diego. "He was the horse of my lifetime," Ritchey added.

And then there was Michael Gill, finally getting a coveted Eclipse owner award, and accepting it with a speech that can only be described as Nixonesque.

Citing a list of grievances with a variety of "establishment" demons (Maryland apparently excluded), Gill vented his frustration over not having won the award in 2003 or 2004 when his "numbers" were even more impressive than those his claiming stable achieved in 2005 (and winners Khalid Abdullah and Ken Ramsey were presumably less worthy). Gill was lavish in his praise of the legion of trainers he has employed, but he neglected to name any of the horses that started 1,837 times in 2005, winning 349 races and $6.3 million in purses.

Gill, who has dispersed some of his racing stable and most of his breeding stock, concluded with a variation on Richard Nixon's farewell to the press at the Beverly Hilton, just down the block, after he lost the 1962 California's governor's race.

"As I leave you," Nixon said, "I want you to know, just think how much you will be missing - you don't have Nixon to kick around anymore."

Gill's version:

"I am going to miss racing," he said, "and I think racing is going to miss me back."

We'll see. In the meantime, the keynote theme was more pertinently delivered by Award of Merit winner Penny Chenery, who was honored for her years of charitable work in racing, in addition to her role as keeper of the Secretariat flame. It was easy and a pleasure, Chenery said, mainly because of the lesson learned years earlier when she attended the 1950 Kentucky Derby with her father, Christopher Chenery, to watch their brilliant colt Hill Prince. He lost, and young Penny wept.

"I knew he would win," Chenery recalled. "He was supposed to win. My dad looked at me crying and told me to stop. He said, 'Don't embarrass the horse.' "

Hey-ooo.