01/19/2008 1:00AM

Old friends mix with new faces


ARCADIA, Calif. - There will be a host of new faces in the room Monday night in Beverly Hills, when the Eclipse Awards are passed out at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, and that's a good thing. The more the merrier, even though only a handful can win. It's just an honor to be nominated, and all that jazz.

Maggi Moss - welcome to the finals. You might not win it all, but it should be only a matter of time. Institutions like Shadwell and Stronach have permanent seatings at this particular event, and they're usually favored to win. But make room for Jess Jackson, whose first champion - that colt Curlin - will be hard to top.

Besides Curlin, the only other horse sharp enough to be mentioned in two categories is Nashoba's Key, giving her people, Eclipse rookies Carla Gaines and Spud Williamson, an extra reason to be proud. The one wearing the dress, by the way, is the trainer.

Watch out for the Maryfield bunch, especially if their heartthrob wins for best female sprinter. Everything they did in racing last year they did for the first time - including her major victories at Saratoga and in her Breeders' Cup race at Monmouth - which makes their reactions fresh and completely unrehearsed. But if they are stumped by any of the Eclipse Award traditions - red carpet, claustrophobic cocktails, TVG klieg lights - they need only check with their trainer, Doug O'Neill.

It is a testament to the O'Neill organization that - if Maryfield wins - they will be represented by a champion for the third straight year, following 2-year-old colt Stevie Wonderboy in 2005 and sprinter Thor's Echo in 2006. It's not as easy as it sounds.

Okay, it is if you are training Affirmed, like Laz Barrera did to championship seasons in 1977, 1978, and 1979. Barrera also won a championship with Bold Forbes in 1976, giving him four straight years when he produced an Eclipse Award winner.

Such sustained excellence is not unprecedented, but apparently reserved for only a chosen few. Any trainer will tell you it's hard enough to bag one championship in a lifetime, Wayne Lukas being the exception that proves the rule. The Lukas stable had at least one champion for a run of nine straight years, beginning with Landaluce in 1982 through Criminal Type in 1990.

With Cigar leading the way, Bill Mott had champions in four straight years, 1995-98. Todd Pletcher will have hit four straight after the envelopes are opened Monday night to crown turf horse English Channel and 3-year-old filly Rags to Riches.

Training champions in three straight Eclipse years reveals another impressive group, beginning with Lucien Laurin, blessed with Riva Ridge and Secretariat, 1971-73. Bobby Frankel, a likely winner Monday because of the older mare Ginger Punch, dominated the female grass division for three straight years, 1995-97, while Ron McAnally trained champions in 1989-91. And from over there, Aidan O'Brien sent American champions Johannesburg (2001) and High Chaparral (2002 and 2003).

Bob Baffert was on a terrific roll as the 20th century transitioned into the 21st. He had champions in 1997, 1998, and 1999, then again in 2001 and 2002. Three of them were Kentucky Derby winners, and another, Point Given, was Horse of the Year.

However, after basking in the glow of 3-year-old War Emblem and 2-year-old Vindication, honored at the Eclipse dinner in January of 2003, Baffert went missing from the ceremonies for four straight years. Neither was he a factor in the Triple Crown, which had become his reason to rise each day. At least, that was the perception.

"Yeah, that's a bad deal," Baffert said Saturday morning as he watched a set at Santa Anita, in the company of his wife, Jill, and 3-year-old son, Bode. "But if you go back there and get beat a few times, you ruin your record."

Whether or not Baffert is back in the Derby picture this year remains to be seen. The imposing 3-year-old colt Maimonides walked past as he spoke, grown into a man now after his promising early career last summer was interrupted by shins. He may still be the one, but in the meantime, Baffert will be back in the Eclipse spotlight Monday night as trainer of two likely champions, the 2-year-old filly champion Indian Blessing and the male sprinter Midnight Lute.

Both runners represent old-school Baffert guys. Indian Blessing is owned by Hal Earnhardt, a Baffert client since 1983 when they were rolling high with Quarter Horses. Mike Pegram, a partner in Midnight Lute, jumped in with Earnhardt in the 1980s, after which both men were instrumental in pushing Baffert out of the Quarter Horse nest and into Thoroughbreds. Between the two, Earnhardt and Pegram have owned such major Baffert runners as El Corredor, Silverbulletday, Captain Steve, and Pussycat Doll, not to mention Real Quiet, the sire of Midnight Lute, and Indian Charlie, sire of Indian Blessing. Now, if the betting holds, there will be two champions of 2007 added to the list Monday night.

"The last time I wore my tuxedo was 2002," Baffert said. "You wouldn't believe the layer of dust, but my wife said she'd vacuum the coat."