01/02/2008 12:00AM

Pletcher a shoo-in . . . isn't he?


ARCADIA, Calif. - Any attempts to anticipate what the American voter will do during the 2008 presidential primaries probably will be futile. Thank goodness, then, for the Eclipse Award process. Those results are usually as predictable as the sunrise.

The majority of the voters rarely get past the results of the Breeders' Cup and the year-end statistical tables for purse earnings when selecting their champions. This reduces the racing season to a Cliff's Notes version of reality - accurate enough, but not the whole story - and discourages both creative and independent thinking.

So, when it comes to the human element among the Eclipse Award categories, the smart money rests with Garrett Gomez, Todd Pletcher, and Frank Stronach to take home trophies for jockey, trainer, and owner. All three were clear-cut leaders of their categories.

Sometimes, though, there is a grass-roots rebellion, when voters veer from the expected path. It happened in 1990, when the popular veteran Craig Perret, winner of the Kentucky Derby aboard Unbridled, outpolled the clear-cut money leader, Gary Stevens, for the jockey Eclipse Award. It happened in 2001, when Tyler Baze ranked second to Norberto Arroyo among apprentice riders in purse earnings, and still won the Eclipse. And it happened dramatically in 1988, when Shug McGaughey ended a three-year Eclipse Award reign by Wayne Lukas.

It wasn't as if Lukas took a holiday. In 1988, his national organization topped the standings in both purses and winners. The Lukas stable won the Kentucky Derby with the filly Winning Colors, and in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, the Lukas-trained colt Is It True upset the heavily favored McGaughey hotshot Easy Goer.

What happened? Lukas overload, probably. The trainer had dominated both the standings and the conversation for several years. The 1988 season marked his sixth straight atop the purse list while setting an earnings record of $17.8 million. If ever he was going to win an Eclipse Award, 1988 should have been the year.

McGaughey not only broke the Lukas stranglehold, he set a trend. While Lukas went on to top the purse standings from 1989 through 1992, he was shut out for Eclipse Awards each of those seasons, losing in the voting to Charlie Whittingham (1989), Carl Nafzger (1990), and Ron McAnally (1991 and 1992).

A similar scenario could be unspooling this time around. Pletcher topped the purse standings in 2004, 2005, and 2006 and won three Eclipse Awards for his trouble. In 2007, he even out-Pletchered himself, accumulating $28 million in purses to shattered his own record. He won the Belmont Stakes with the filly Rags to Riches and the Breeders' Cup Turf with likely champion English Channel.

Odds favor Pletcher's fourth straight Eclipse, which would equal the accomplishments of Lazaro Barrera (1976-79) and Bobby Frankel (2000-03). But in the trainer category, results have been more organic. Voters historically have looked for viable alternatives, especially if they seem to grow weary of the guy perennially on top.

When Lukas led the purse totals in 1995 and 1996, the Eclipse Awards went to Bill Mott, largely for his work with two-time Horse of the Year Cigar, much as McGaughey had won for Personal Ensign, Whittingham for Sunday Silence, and Nafzger for Unbridled. When Bob Baffert seemed assured of his fourth straight Eclipse in 2000, after leading the national standings, voters went for Frankel instead. And lest we forget, in 1973 the Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer did not go to Lucien Laurin, the man who orchestrated the campaign of both Triple Crown winner Secretariat and the older male champion Riva Ridge. It went to Allen Jerkens, who handed both Secretariat and Riva Ridge high-profile defeats.

For 2007, voters so inclined did not need to look far for an alternative to Pletcher. Steve Asmussen finished second in the purse column, and he edged Scott Lake in terms of winners, 488 to 485, while Pletcher was a distant third. Asmussen also started about a thousand more horses than Pletcher, but somehow he managed to find time in his busy schedule to train Curlin, the heavy favorite for Horse of the Year. On Wednesday, he was asked if he was pacing the floor nights, worrying about that Eclipse voting.

"Absolutely," Asmussen replied, playing along. Then he got serious.

"Simply said, and I say this respectfully, I think it means more to the people around you," Asmussen began. "You can feel how much they want it."

The Asmussen organization is huge, including several assistant trainers and established stables throughout the Midwest and much of the East. In 2007, the Asmussen runners nailed down training titles at Churchill Downs, Oaklawn Park, Lone Star Park, and Remington Park. The stable includes not only Curlin, the top money winner of 2007, but also Golden Hare, the top race winner of the year with 14 victories.

"The funny thing about the Eclipse Award is that it's the opposite of what we do," Asmussen said. "For me, the great thing about horse racing is that it's not anybody's opinion. It's what you can do, and they let you bet on it. It's not judged, like figure skating. When it's all said and done, the Eclipse is great coffee shop talk, but it's not the reason you do anything."