01/05/2006 1:00AM

Saint Liam, Alex lead pack

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Stevie Wonderboy (above), winning the BC Juvenile under Garrett Gomez, is favored in his division.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Saint Liam and Afleet Alex, the two leading contenders for Horse of the Year, on Thursday were announced as finalists in their respective divisions for Eclipse Awards, whose winners will be revealed at a black-tie dinner at the Regent Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Jan. 23.

Saint Liam completed his year with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont Park. Earlier, he won the Donn Handicap, Stephen Foster Handicap, and Woodward Stakes. He is a finalist for champion older male, along with Borrego, who won the Pacific Classic and Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Rock Hard Ten, the Santa Anita Handicap winner.

Afleet Alex was the star of the first half of the year, when he won the Arkansas Derby and Belmont Stakes, as well as a never-to-be-forgotten victory in the Preakness. He is a finalist for champion 3-year-old colt, along with Flower Alley, the Travers Stakes winner, and Giacomo, who won the Kentucky Derby.

Three finalists in each of 15 Eclipse Award categories - 10 for horses, five for people - were announced on Thursday by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. Finalists for Horse of the Year are not announced, to avoid tipping off which horses are the favorites for divisional honors. But it is widely acknowledged that Saint Liam is the overwhelming favorite for a divisional championship, and the favorite to be named Horse of the Year. Afleet Alex is also considered a lock for his divisional title.

The Eclipse Awards are voted on by the awards' three sponsoring bodies, but all votes are pooled; bloc voting was phased out several years ago. The NTRA, which includes racing secretaries and members of Equibase, cast 66 ballots out of a

possible 80 voters. Daily Racing Form also had 80 potential voters, of whom 65 submitted ballots. The National Turf Writers Association had 133 of its 164 eligible members vote.

There were few surprises among the finalists, but the trainer category was a notable exception. Richard Dutrow Jr., who trained Saint Liam and also won the Breeders' Cup Sprint with sprint division finalist Silver Train, was not among the top three. The finalists are Steve Asmussen, who led the nation in winners; Bobby Frankel, who won nine Grade 1 races, including the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf; and Todd Pletcher, who set a single-season earnings record while winning 10 Grade 1 races. Pletcher, who won the Eclipse Award in 2004, is considered the favorite.

Dutrow acknowledged that a 60-day suspension he served last year, part of which was because of a medication violation, may have hindered his chances.

"Todd had a bigger year than me, and Bobby always has a bigger year than everybody," Dutrow said from Florida, where he is based this winter. "If I didn't have the suspension, I might have squeezed in there for third place.

"Look, I had an unbelievable year, but I didn't start training to win awards. I did it because I love it. I couldn't be happier with the year we had."

In addition to Silver Train, the other sprint division finalists are Lost in the Fog, the King's Bishop winner whose 10-race winning streak came to an end in the Breeders' Cup, and Saratoga County, who won the Dubai Golden Shaheen in March but had to be euthanized in July after falling ill. The popular Lost in the Fog is favored to win.

One of the divisions that figures to be close is champion male turf horse, whose finalists include Artie Schiller, the Breeders' Cup Mile winner, and Leroidesanimaux, who won the Kilroe Mile and Atto Mile before losing his lone start against Artie Schiller. The other finalist in this category is Shirocco, the Breeders' Cup Turf winner.

Breeders' Cup winners are the heavy favorites in several categories.

Stevie Wonderboy, who won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, is favored to beat out fellow finalists First Samurai, the winner of the Champagne and Hopeful stakes, and Henny Hughes, the Juvenile runner-up, for champion 2-year-old male.

Folklore, the winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, is expected to be named champion 2-year-old filly against finalists Adieu, who won the Frizette Stakes, and Wild Fit, the Del Mar Debutante winner.

Intercontinental, who won the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, is considered the front-runner for champion female turf horse. The other finalists are her Frankel-trained stablemate Megahertz, who won the Yellow Ribbon Stakes, and Cesario, the Japanese filly who was a runaway winner of the American Oaks.

Ashado, last year's champion 3-year-old filly, is a finalist for champion older female along with Pleasant Home, who upset Ashado in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, and Stellar Jayne, who won the Ruffian Handicap. Ashado is considered the favorite in this division based on her overall record, which included three Grade 1 victories - the Phipps, Go for Wand, and Beldame. If Ashado wins, she will become the first filly since Life's Magic in 1984-85 to capture Eclipse Awards at ages 3 and 4.

This year's 3-year-old filly title is one of the more difficult to predict, since no filly asserted her superiority during the year. Smuggler, who won the Mother Goose Stakes and Coaching Club American Oaks, is considered a slight favorite over Round Pond, who defeated Smuggler in the Acorn Stakes, and Summerly, the Kentucky Oaks winner.

The steeplechase finalists are Hirapour, who won the New York Turf Writers Handicap; McDynamo, the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase winner; and Sur La Tete, who won the Iroquois Stakes.

John Velazquez, who was the Eclipse Award-winning jockey in 2004, set a single-season record for earnings in 2005, and is favored to win his second championship. The other finalists are Jerry Bailey, who led the nation in Grade 1 wins with 13, and Edgar Prado, who won nine Grade 1 races, including the BC Juvenile Fillies and BC Sprint. The notable omission in this category is California-based Garrett Gomez, who rode Breeders' Cup winners Stevie Wonderboy and Artie Schiller.

Edward Evans, the breeder of Saint Liam, is a finalist for champion breeder along with Frank Stronach's Adena Springs, which led the nation in purse earnings, and Charlotte Weber's Live Oak Stud, which bred Florida Derby winner High Fly.

Weber, who races under Live Oak Plantation, is also a finalist for champion owner. The others finalists are Eugene Melnyk, whose best horse was Flower Alley, and Michael Gill, whose claiming-based stable led the nation in purse earnings but won no Grade 1 races. Gill is favored.

The finalists for champion apprentice jockey are Channing Hill, Justin Stein, and the favorite, Emma-Jayne Wilson, the Toronto-based woman who led North American apprentices in both victories and purse earnings.