01/27/2004 12:00AM

No less nerve-wracking the 4th time

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Bobby Frankel was ready for a bad night. All the signs were there. Five of his horses were Eclipse Award finalists, but none was considered a slam-dunk favorite. The last two trainers to win three straight Eclipse Awards failed to cop a fourth. And then there was that Breeders' Cup shadow. Shut out on the big day in 2003 - in the face of Richard Mandella's incredible four-bagger - Frankel figured the jig was up.

"I kept thinking about 1988, when Lukas set the record but Shug McGaughey won the Eclipse," Frankel said. "I really thought something like that could happen again."

Don't let his rough rap fool you. Frankel is a devoted student of the game and a connoisseur of its history - even the history he does not make himself. When the far-flung D. Wayne Lukas operation set the earnings record of $17.8 million in 1988 (which included the victory of Winning Colors in the Kentucky Derby), it was McGaughey who stole the show on Breeders' Cup Day when Personal Ensign came through in the Distaff, winning her 13th career race without a defeat and beating Winning Colors in the process. Eclipse to McGaughey.

Lazaro Barrera won four straight Eclipse Awards, from 1976 to 1979. Lukas (1985-87) and Bob Baffert (1997-99) won three straight, while Ron McAnally (1991-92) and Bill Mott (1995-96) were consistent enough to win two straight trophies. Charlie Whittingham won three, spread out over 18 years. McGaughey and eight others won it once.

As it turned out, Frankel's worries were needless. He overwhelmed Mandella in the voting, 193-44, to join Barrera as the only four-time winner. Fellow finalist Todd Pletcher, second to Frankel on the 2003 money list, and Steve Asmussen each received five first-place votes, while Scott Lake, 2003 champion in terms of winners, was named first on one ballot.

Only one of Frankel's five finalists got the prize. That was Aldebaran, the versatile sprinter who won major stakes in California, Kentucky, and New York. The others - Medaglia d'Oro, Heat Haze, Sightseek, and Empire Maker - contributed to Frankel's unprecedented 2003 totals, which included record earnings of $19,143,289 and a surreal 25 Grade 1 stakes victories. That translates as one in every four Grade 1's run in the United States last year. It should also be noted that Frankel's totals were accumulated in spite of his almost complete absence from 2-year-old stakes competition.

Frankel was up and running full time for most of the year in both New York and California. As in the past, his acceptance speech was short and sweet, primarily acknowledging his clients (Juddmonte Farms and Edmund Gann chief among them) and his stable staff, which includes assistant trainers Humberto Ascanio and Sally Lundy, traveling assistant Jose Cuevas, and foreman Ruben Loza.

"They're not here tonight," Frankel said, "because they're back in California doing all the work that makes it happen."