12/20/2006 12:00AM

Some were most rewarding


My official Eclipse Award ballot is in the mail with the following names on top of the eight major racing divisions: Street Sense for his 10-length victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile; Dreaming of Anna for her undefeated season, including a dominating win in the BC Juvenile Fillies; Bernardini for his succession of graded stakes victories after Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro was forced to the sidelines; Wait a While as top 3-year-old filly for her graded stakes victories on dirt and turf, including an impressive score in the Grade 1 Yellow Ribbon at Santa Anita against older; The Tin Man as top older turf male for his four graded turf victories in America, including the Arlington Million; the outstanding European Ouija Board as top turf filly or mare; BC Sprint winner Thor's Echo narrowly over the consistent Bordonaro and the exciting but gingerly campaigned Discreet Cat; Invasor for top older male and Horse of the Year for his decisive score over Bernardini in the $5 million BC Classic.

But even beyond the above horses, there were several on the list of Eclipse Award nominees who deserve even more plaudits from horseplayers for their intrinsic value in the parimutuel betting pools. Here, then, are my nominees for MVP awards - the Most Valuable Payoff horses of 2006.

Two-year-old males: Stormello. Not only did this son of Stormy Atlantic win a maiden race in his second outing at 10-1, he won the Norfolk Stakes in a very game performance at 11-1 and finished up 2006 with an equally game, hard-fought victory in the Hollywood Futurity. In that Dec. 16 race, Stormello was a surprisingly underrated second choice.

Two-year-old fillies: Sutra. Ignored at 9.90-1, this daughter of Meadowlake, trained by the high-percentage Michael Stidham, went from last to first after a poor start to win her career debut at Arlington Park. Then she was beaten a nose in the Arlington-Washington Lassie at 8.80-1, before shipping to Belmont for a clear-cut victory in the Grade 1 Frizette at 12.50-1. Although badly outrun in the BC Juvenile Fillies, her two victories and narrow second at generous odds gave her more credibility than Meadow Breeze's 34-1 victory in the Matron and Bel Air Beauty's equally shocking score in the Alcibiades at 47-1. On the other hand, there was nothing wrong with Dreaming of Anna's undefeated season at relatively short odds, which concluded with a respectable 7.20 payoff in the BC Juvenile Fillies.

Three-year-old males: Sinister Minister and Barbaro. In my personal judgment, the two biggest overlays in this year's Triple Crown season occurred in the Blue Grass Stakes and Kentucky Derby.

Sinister Minister, a Bob Baffert trainee, entered the Blue Grass at Keeneland with the dominant early speed, but was dismissed at 8.90-1. This, on the speed favoring (pre-Polytrack) Keeneland racing surface that historically had produced so many wire-to-wire winners. Sinister Minister not only set a blistering early pace, he kept right on going to a 12 1/2-length victory while earning one of the top Beyer Speed Figures of the year, 116. It also was no surprise that he was cooked after that performance and was an easy throwout in the Kentucky Derby, which was won by the second-biggest overlay of the Triple Crown season, Barbaro.

While the 2006 Derby field seemed well balanced and difficult to separate, there was quite a lot to like about the undefeated, versatile Barbaro, who had been schooled in five prior route races and had shown great determination outgaming a stubborn Sharp Humor in the Florida Derby before galloping out many lengths ahead of that rival after the finish. Under expert, if not unorthodox, handling by trainer Michael Matz, Barbaro trained stoutly during his five-week break to the Derby, drawing raves from all who witnessed his workouts and gallops.

At 6.10-1, Barbaro was a decided value play for those who properly saw this unbeaten colt as the logical 3-1 or 5-2 betting favorite, if not one of the best overlays in recent Kentucky Derby history. While Bernardini certainly deserved serious consideration in this category for his value score in the Preakness at a generous 12-1, the legitimacy of that result was hard to measure in the context of Barbaro's severe injury in the same race.

Three-year-old filly: Bushfire. Not only did the Eddie Kenneally-trained Bushfire win 5 of her 9 starts in 2006, she paid generous prices throughout the year: 4.40-1 to win an allowance race in January at Gulfstream, 5.70-1 to win the Tampa Bay Oaks in March, an amazing 15.10-1 in the Ashland at Keeneland in April, 4.60-1 to win the Acorn at Belmont in June, and a respectable 3.30-1 to win the Mother Goose at Belmont in July before going off form for her final two starts of the year.

Four-year-olds and up, male: Invasor. As previously stated, he won all four of his starts in America, but was the betting favorite only once. His first win in America was the Pimlico Special at 6.10-1, and his last was in the BC Classic at 6.70-1, when the betting public went overboard on Bernardini. In between his Pimlico Special and the BC Classic, Invasor won two other Grade 1's at much lower odds, but the only other possible alternative to consider in this division was Premium Tap. Premium Tap won four races in 2006, including the Woodward at Saratoga at 31-1 for his first Graded stakes victory, and he did finish third at 27-1 in the BC Classic. On the negative side, Premium Tap also finished fifth twice as the short-priced betting favorite.

Four-year-olds and up, female: Take D' Tour. For a stretch of four races during the spring, this 5-year-old mare trained by the unheralded David Fawkes was a money tree to those who believed in her. At Gulfstream in March, she paid 8.30-1 winning an allowance race. In April at the same track she took another allowance race, by 10 widening lengths as the 2.20-1 second choice.

In May, Take D' Tour won the Grade 2 Shuvee at Belmont at 6.20-1 before she won the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps just as easily at 3.35-1. Although her next three outings in New York were not nearly as good, Take D' Tour returned to winning form at Calder in November, scoring easily in a $200,000 stakes with the lowest odds of her 20-race career.

Sprinter: Other than the upset victories posted by Pure as Gold at 23.10-1 in the Los Angeles Handicap and Malibu Mint at 23.60-1 in the Princess Rooney at Calder, there were no sprinters whose resumes for the year qualified them for special MVP mention.

Turf horse, females: Silver Cup. The forgotten 4-year-old Silver Cup won all three of her races in 2006, all Grade 2 events during the winter at Santa Anita. She won the San Gorgonio at 16.70-1 in January, the Buena Vista at 7.10-1 in February, and the Santa Ana at 2.80-1 in March before she was injured. With her three scores as a non-favorite, I prefer Silver Cup narrowly over unbeaten Vacare and three-time winner Arravale as the Most Valuable Payoff horse in this category.

Turf horse, males: Miesque's Approval. He won five races in 2006 and was a generous price in most of them. In the Sunshine Millions Turf at Gulfstream in January, this Marty Wolfson-trained 7-year-old paid a staggering 48.80-1. In the Maker's Mark at Keeneland in April he paid 6-1, and after two victories as the betting favorite and a fourth in the Shadwell Mile, Miesque's Approval scored a going-away triumph in the BC Mile at an ultra-generous 24.30-1 to be the MVP winner in this division and my choice as Most Valuable Payoff Horse in 2006.