01/25/2005 1:00AM

One-liners outdid an apology

Julio Canani, with his wife, Lana, in full sartorial splendor.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - For a moment, it was 1952 all over again, and Richard Nixon was trying to save his political hide by playing down slush fund allegations and diverting attention with references to his wife's "good Republican cloth coat" and his daughter's dog, Checkers.

A few beats later, Merv Griffin appeared from out of a misty cloud of talk show nostalgia, not quite Johnny Carson but very smooth, needing only Arthur Treacher and a desk to put the world at ease.

Then, at some point John Wayne entered the hall, closely followed by Will Rogers, who between them provided a bedrock, down-home reality that felt like the whole place had suddenly become Kansas, circa 1948.

The Eclipse Awards Dinner on Monday night was all over the dial. Those watching at home on TVG could stash the remote and settle in, since the show flipped around all by itself.

Former trainer, TVG analyst, and Irish demi-bard Frank Lyons set the tone with a warm-up patter that included jokes about plush Beverly Wilshire hotel towels ("had trouble closing my suitcase") and Ken Ramsey's $25,000 Kentucky violation for trying to bribe his way into a race.

"I got the last spot in valet parking," Lyons said. "Then Ken pulled up in his limo and offered me $500."

Jerry O'Connell, the first-time emcee and co-star of "Crossing Jordan" ("Quincy" for chicks), was charming to a fault and obviously starstruck by his proximity to some of racing's top names. He played his role as knowledgeable racing fan, which he is, instead of handsome TV actor and fashion model, which he also is.

In a seamless job that was refreshingly free of scripted groaners, O'Connell ad-libbed references to tucked away corners of Hollywood Park (from which he watched Laffit Pincay break Bill Shoemaker's win record) and to the heartbreak of Bob Lewis losing not one but two chances at the Triple Crown. O'Connell said hosting the Eclipse Awards was better than winning the Nobel Prize, which qualifies as mild overstatement. But he also worked for free, so who cares?

As presenters, old pros such as Larry King, a seasoned handicapper, and Merv Griffin, a horse owner on a winning roll, kept things loose and light, doing what they do best, which is making other people relax and deliver the goods.

Pat Chapman, co-owner of 3-year-old champ Smarty Jones with her absent husband, Roy, got off to a slow start in her thorough and emotional acceptance speech. "It's really an honor to be here," she began, then mumbled a soft, "Where are we?" To which Griffin replied in his best radio baritone, "Beverly Hills," as if there were no place else on earth. When she left the stage, with trainer John Servis at her side, Merv invited her over to the house, adding, "Bring the horse."

Comedy is tough, though, and only those qualified should attempt it in public. Marty Wygod, accepting the honor for 2-year-old filly Sweet Catomine, tried describing his trainer, Julio Canani, as dressed like "our waiter," when it was clear the flamboyant Canani's intention - with his baby blue shirt, white tuxedo, and cowboy hat - was an homage to the outfits worn by The Beatles while descending a staircase singing "Your Mother Should Know" in "The Magical Mystery Tour." Right, Julio?

Then there was Frank Stronach, whose glorious evening included two awards for Horse of the Year Ghostzapper and another as champion breeder. Stronach needed all three stages of his appearances before finally getting his laugh line right about praying to "the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost."

On the other hand, Jack Van Berg got an ovation just because he is still Jack Van Berg. Looking everyone in the eye at the same time - no mean trick - he introduced Special Eclipse Award recipient Dale Baird with the warning, "He's got two speeches: a short one and a longer one. It will be either 'Thank you' or 'Thank you very much.' "

Baird fooled Big Jack, though. Making his first appearance on an Eclipse Award stage, Baird unfolded a piece of paper and proceeded to take the audience on a sentimental journey through his early years as a trainer, before he became a West Virginia institution with more than 9,000 wins. Baird recalled the days he paid his brothers and sisters in candy bars and Pepsi for help around the barn. He acknowledged the everlasting debt owed his horseman father, and thanked his longtime assistant, Penny Matthias. Van Berg's reaction?

"I didn't know he was that windy."

Standing there, Baird and Van Berg represented more than 15,000 winners. A few minutes later, a similar tableaux unfurled, when presenters Laffit Pincay and Julie Krone were flanked by Eclipse Award-winning jockey John Velazquez and his agent, Angel Cordero. The rough total among them was more than 23,000 wins.

And isn't winning what it's all about? Well, yes and no. Reactions in the room were mixed at the mea culpa of Ken Ramsey, delivered during his acceptance of the male turf horse award for Kitten's Joy. Ramsey blamed an overzealous desire to win for his botched attempt to bribe another owner into scratching a horse so that a Ramsey runner could run, and for some in the crowd, Ramsey's abject apology did the trick.

For others, like former Eclipse Award of Merit winner Bob Lewis, it rang hollow. Ramsey's subsequent, joyous acceptance of the owner Eclipse only served to rub it in.

"What he did was inexcusable," said Lewis, sitting with his fellow directors of the Oak Tree Racing Association. "And I'm not the only one in this room who thinks so. It's a black eye for racing, and it sends the wrong message."

Charles Cella, recipient of this year's Eclipse Award of Merit as a representative of his family-owned Oaklawn Park, may have delivered exactly the right message in choosing to quote Stan Musial, a hero of Cella's younger St. Louis days.

"When asked about the grind of going to the ballpark every day," Cella said, "Musial would always answer that he was just lucky to be able to play the game."