01/25/2005 1:00AM

Ramsey flies high - and low

Ken Ramsey, just before being named champion owner.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - When his name was announced as the winner as champion owner Monday night at the Eclipse Awards dinner, the catharsis for owner Ken Ramsey was complete.

Earlier in the evening at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, while accepting the award for Kitten's Joy as champion male turf horse, Ramsey made an emotional, heartfelt apology for his actions of Dec. 31, when he offered to pay a rival owner $1,000 to scratch a horse out of a race at Turfway Park. Ramsey subsequently was suspended for one week and fined $25,000 by the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority.

"To each of you - my family, friends, the racing industry, and the media - I truly apologize and ask for your forgiveness," Ramsey said.

Ramsey's body language was that of an embarrassed, shamed man, and he walked off with his shoulders slumped, even though much of the black-tie crowd responded to his apology with a standing ovation.

But when Ramsey and wife Sarah were later announced as champion owner for the exploits of Kitten's Joy, as well as Nothing to Lose and Roses in May, Ramsey leaped to his feet and pumped his right fist in the air. The boundless energy and enthusiasm for which he is known was back. "This one is really, really, really super special," he said when he reached the podium.

Not far from Ramsey, though, another finalist for champion owner, Mike Gill, stared straight ahead, emotionless. Gill is admittedly ambitious about his quest for champion owner - his statements betray a sense of entitlement - and for the second straight year, the nation's winningest owner in terms of races won had reached the top three finalists with his claiming-based outfit but had lost to an owner whose horses race at the sport's highest level. For the rest of the evening, Gill's table - made up of family and friends - looked on glumly, rarely applauding for any subsequent winners.

Champion owner was one of three categories that was deemed a close call heading into the evening, along with champion trainer and sprinter. The reactions of the runners-up in those divisions ranged from trainer Steve Asmussen saying his single-season record of 555 wins left him "pleased and satisfied," even though he finished second to Todd Pletcher, to trainer Paulo Lobo saying Pico Central's loss to Speightstown for champion sprinter left him "very sad."

Speightstown defeated Pico Central by 157 votes to 101 in balloting among members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, National Turf Writers Association, and Daily Racing Form.

"It's terrible. I'm sad," Lobo said. "But I knew it. We were finished ever since the Breeders' Cup," which Pico Central passed and Speightstown won.

Lobo said he was deeply disappointed that Pico Central was denied a championship in a year in which he shipped from California to win three Grade 1 races in New York - the Carter, Met Mile, and Vosburgh, the latter in his only head-to-head meeting with Speightstown.

"He's the only one that's won those three Grade 1's in history," Lobo said.

Asmussen said he "wasn't surprised" by the outcome for champion trainer. Pletcher trained two Eclipse Award winners, Speightstown and the 3-year-old filly Ashado. Voters preferred Pletcher over Asmussen by 155-71.

"I'm absolutely not disappointed. We had a great year setting the record," Asmussen said. "For me, training is getting the best performance out of a horse on a given day, and that continues to be my goal. You can only do that with the ones you have control over.

"I'm at the beginning of my career. We've come a long ways in four or five years. I feel like the longer I do this, the better I'll get at it. We're moving towards more quality - that's the direction we're headed. We're going to try and acquire better-quality horses. I'm proud of the win record. It was extremely rewarding. But I'm not going to try and beat myself. We're set up to win a bunch of races this year, but I'm not going to be getting on an airplane every day."

Gill took the loss as a challenge to come back more aggressively this year. Voters preferred Ramsey over Gill, 100-79. Asked how he felt about the result, Gill answered for 15 minutes.

"I'm disappointed," Gill said. "I'm not sure what I have to do. I don't want this to sound like sour grapes. Ken Ramsey's a great guy. But I doubled him in earnings, and was seven wins off the [single-season] record. I've had the second-most and fourth-most wins in history the last two years. I'll go for 600 or 700 wins this year. If they set the bar higher, a champion shows his courage and doesn't quit.

"I'll come back every year. I will break the record. I'll put up numbers at Fair Grounds that'll never be touched. I already have the record at Gulfstream. I'll set records at Monmouth and Laurel and Charles Town and Delaware. I'm going to go into Chicago. I'm just going to keep making a statement."

Several persons stopped by Gill's table after the dinner and offered support, including Julio Canani, the trainer of champion 2-year-old filly Sweet Catomine.

"Don't quit trying," said Canani, whose son, Nick, once trained for Gill.

"They thought they had a monster before this," Gill said. "Every time they do this, it's like Frankenstein growing another body part. I'm going to come back bigger and badder."