01/18/2007 12:00AM

Pletcher standing tall as ever

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ARCADIA, Calif. - If, as expected, Todd Pletcher's name is in the envelope at Monday night's Eclipse Awards dinner, he not only will be winning for the third straight year, but also will be the first trainer to accept the honor while under suspension.

Horrors, you say. Whatever is the game coming to? How can anyone be placed on such a pedestal with such a dark cloud hanging over his head? Why not just invite Pete Rose or Scooter Libby to present the trophy and be done with it?

Those in the Hang 'Em High seating section will hold forth, no doubt. But if they are expecting Pletcher to take the stage with his head bowed, mumbling an apology or doing some modern, well-groomed version of Nixon's "I am not a crook," they had better prepare for disappointment.

Reached in Florida, where his horses are spread around places where he can and can't go - by the terms of the 45-day suspension levied by New York authorities - Pletcher was asked if there would be any hint of embarrassment lingering around his high visibility Monday at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel ceremonies.

"Not at all," he insisted. "This Eclipse Award would be about what we did in 2006. The positive test was something that happened in 2004. For anybody who has any questions about how it affected our results, I think the evidence is pretty clear from 2005 and 2006."

In fact, the timing of the Eclipse Awards falling in the middle of Pletcher's suspension was an unintentional by-product of the latest legal ruling in the case. Pletcher has spent tens of thousands of dollars challenging the penalties linked to the discovery of a trace level of the Class 3 anesthetic mepivacaine in a horse he ran at Saratoga in August of 2004. When a New York State Court of Appeals found against his position last month, Pletcher was forced to look hard at the calendar before deciding whether or not to appeal to a higher court.

"We fought it as long as we could," he said. "I just felt that if we lost the next appeal, the timing potentially could have happened during the summer months, and I couldn't afford to take that chance."

Pletcher is putting a good face on the situation, handling the legal wranglings with his typical buttoned-down aplomb. But when he gets rolling on the subject, his voice intensifies - just a trace level - and you know that Pletcher's notorious cool has been sorely tested.

"With a 1.6-nanogram positive, no one would argue that it would have any pharmacological effect, and no one knows how it got there," he said, for probably about the nano-hundredth time. "We felt it was a clear case of contamination, most likely from a veterinary tray. I kept hoping that in my case someone would look at it with some common sense, but it didn't happen."

While gamblers and enforcement evangelicals seem to dominate the current debate over medication policy, the real racing world continues to do business under an umbrella of practical hypocrisy. Certain medications of the Class 3 variety - better known as Just Barely Okay - are allowed to be carried on the backstretch by practicing vets and administered, with warnings of recommended withdrawal time, and then tested to the nth degree.

Even the testing goal line tends to move. When the Pletcher positive was detected, New York permitted the administration of mepivacaine up to seven days before a race. Now it can be given four days out, according to state rules.

"That's what's scary," Pletcher said, referring to hard-core penalties for trace levels. "And that's one of the reasons I wanted to fight it so long, was that hopefully we could get something changed. I'm for testing everything, and making the rules as strict as possible, but just so long as there is some protection for owners and trainers in situations where there are trace levels. Just about every other industry recognizes the issue of trace levels, including the FAA with commercial pilots. It seems that some of the racing rules are a little slow to catch up."

Team Pletcher, with its otherworldly $26.8 million in stable earnings last year, could be collecting more than just a single doodad Monday night. Among their star performers, Fleet Indian is rightfully favored to win the Eclipse Award for best older mare, and English Channel would seem to have at least a decent shot at the Turf Male title against Breeders' Cup Mile winner Miesque's Approval.

Then there is Wait a While, the little gray filly precariously straddling two categories. Among grass racing females, she is bucking the international institution known as Ouija Board. And when pitted against her own generation, she is flying straight into the face of 35 years worth of Eclipse Awards history, during which no grass specialist has ever won the 3-year-old filly award. For her trainer, such recognition would hardly make the suspension fight go away, but at least it would offer a pleasant distraction.

"I just had to figure it's the price of training horses," Pletcher said of his ban. "But the game's been very good to me overall, so I'm not going to complain about it too much."

Good thing too, because when you're on top like Pletcher, no one is likely to listen.