01/20/2006 12:00AM

Only two races go down to wire


ARCADIA, Calif. - Anyone looking for a dose of suspense on their Monday night television schedule might as well stay away from the Eclipse Awards dinner on TVG. Try a "Law and Order" rerun or the Weather Channel instead.

There will be 25 Eclipse Awards presented during ceremonies at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Nine of the winners already have been announced - including the Eclipse Award of Merit for Penny Chenery and a Special Eclipse Award for the Cash is King Stable, owners of Afleet Alex - while all but two of the 10 individual horse divisions appear to be slam dunks. Representatives of Folklore, Stevie Wonderboy, Afleet Alex, Intercontinental, Lost in the Fog, Saint Liam, Ashado, and McDynamo can save a little time and start walking up to the stage right now. Your statue awaits. But whoa there, anyone with a 3-year-old filly or a male turf horse in the running. It's a photo, or at least figures to be. So just stay there on the edge of your seats until the envelope is ripped open.

This time last year, John Servis was floating around somewhere on top of the racing world, still high on the rush provided by the Smarty Jones experience. The Servis clan took Beverly Hills by storm, partied heartily, and left town with not only the trophy for champion 3-year-old of 2004, but also the nod to Smarty Jones as the Big Sport of Turfdom, awarded by the Turf Publicists of America.

This year, Servis has Fox Hill Farms' Round Pond among the finalists for 3-year-old filly honors - along with Smuggler and Summerly - and it takes a brave man to say she has no chance. A daughter of Awesome Again, Round Pond began 2005 as an unstarted maiden, won her first race at Oaklawn Park in mid-February, then went on to take the Honeybee, the Fantasy, and the Acorn Stakes before losing the Delaware Oaks by a length.

"I wish I could send everyone a copy of the Acorn Stakes before they voted," Servis said Friday morning from Oaklawn Park, where he was gearing up for opening day. "I'm just hoping that everybody sticks to what they were saying last year."

Servis was referring to the 2004 Horse of the Year debate between Smarty Jones and Ghostzapper, during which the trainer heard - over and over - how much "faster" Ghostzapper was than the younger colt.

"If they go by that premise, then it's between Round Pond and Summerly," Servis said. "And Smuggler's out of the mix. We ran against her one time [in the Acorn] and smoked her." The margin was 1 1/2 lengths.

The vote, already sealed and delivered, came down to three fillies whose seasons all ended in July, so the result will be received - beyond the winner's camp - with a widespread sigh. Somebody had to win. The good news is that Round Pond is back in training with Servis, with a return schedule some time in late February.

In contrast to the 3-year-old filly category, the turf males present two candidates that both present compelling championship credentials.

Leroidesanimeaux did everything right except win the Breeders' Cup Mile last year, and on that day he was, in fairness, probably compromised by wearing protective shoes.

Still, they all left the gate at the same time, leaving excuses behind, and at the end of the Mile it was Artie Schiller by three-quarters of a length over Leroy. End of story.

But for a nose, a half, and a head, Artie Schiller would have gone a perfect 6 for 6 in 2005, beginning in April at Keeneland and ending at the Breeders' Cup. Trainer Jimmy Jerkens has a similar schedule in mind this year for his turf star, and he has no problem with the idea that he might be campaigning a reigning champ.

"We were seriously considering that race for him at Hollywood Park after the Breeders' Cup, especially with the championship kind of up in the air," Jerkens said Friday from his Palm Meadows headquarters. He was referring to the $400,000 Citation Handicap, originally scheduled for last Nov. 26. As a Grade 1 race at nine furlongs on grass, it could have added just enough to Artie Schiller's record to convincingly tip the scales. Unfortunately, Hollywood Park management had to scrap its fall turf program because of dire problems with a newly planted course. Instead of a westward trek, Artie Schiller bedded down with Jerkens in Florida to await his 5-year-old season, likely beginning at Keeneland in the spring.

"He gets pretty heavy when he's not doing anything, and he can be a little crabby going when he first starts back," Jerkens noted. "It will probably take until April just to get him ready."

The Artie Schiller table at the Eclipse Awards dinner will include Jerkens and the owners, William and Christine Entenmann and Tom and Denise Walsh. Each chair will come equipped with a set of pins and needles. Asked if he feels as if the award might come their way, Jerkens waxed ambivalent.

"First I do, and then I don't, then I do, then I don't," he replied. "I guess you could say it's kind of back and forth."

Thank goodness, too. One man's anxiety is a small price to pay for a little drama.