01/11/2005 12:00AM

These gave best bang for the buck in '04


Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to fabulous Las Vegas for the fifth annual ROI Awards.

While the 2004 Eclipse Awards will be awarded to horse racing's top performers in Beverly Hills a week and a half from now on Monday, Jan. 24, here in Vegas we're always looking for value for our wagering dollar.

ROI stands for Return on Investment, but for the purposes of this show I will pronounce it "Roy."

Winners were chosen in the same categories as the Eclipse Awards, capped by our ROI Horse of the Year, or ROI HOY. Since these are meant as national awards, only horses who ran in American stakes races that attracted sizable betting pools were considered. It's great for the people who had a $200 winner at a bush track or in a claiming race at a big track, but I'm looking to honor horses in major races who were true overlays from large betting pools, and who could be bet by as many people as possible at simulcast outlets. In addition, foreign races will not be considered (sorry, Canada, I know that's a slap in the face since you've already lost your national sport, but your races aren't available in Vegas). This is for the everyday American horseplayer. Let's leave the black-tie set to their own awards.

The envelopes please . . .

Older male: This category is a good one to start with to illustrate my concept. With his victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Ghostzapper likely earned himself an Eclipse as the top older horse and also the traditional Horse of the Year honor. Since he was favored in all four of his starts in 2004, however, his ROI was just $4.33 (a combined $17.30 in mutuel win payoffs, divided by four races). Meanwhile, Colonial Colony won just 1 of 8 starts last year. But it was a doozy. He went off at 62-1, paying $127.20, in the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill, and even though he went 0 for 7 the rest of the year, his ROI was still a robust $15.90 to win this category.

Older female: This division was so dominated by favorites that it was impossible for anyone to break through with a big ROI. Sightseek and Azeri, the top contenders for the Eclipse, had ROI's of $2.11 and $2.09, respectively. Victory Encounter emerges as the winner with an ROI of $3.63 in seven starts, highlighted by a 7-1 score in the Grade 1 Vanity at Hollywood.

Male turf: Kitten's Joy won 6 of 8 races in 2004, and not even a loss in the BC Turf will keep him from an Eclipse. But his ROI was just $4.08. The horse that upset him in the Turf, Better Talk Now, used his 27-1 score to increase his ROI on the year to $9.45 from eight races. That wasn't quite enough to win this division, as a horse earlier that same day - Singletary, who also had a 9-1 win earlier in the year - won the BC Mile at 16-1 to improve his ROI to $9.83 in six starts.

Female turf: Ouija Board has this Eclipse sewn up with a dominating performance in the Filly and Mare Turf, but her $3.80 ROI in that one race doesn't compare to Crimson Palace's $21.80 score in the Grade 1 Beverly D. at Arlington in her lone U.S. start.

Three-year-old filly: Ashado likely gets the nod over Ouija Board for the Eclipse, but her $6 win in the Breeders' Cup Distaff only improved her ROI to $2.84 from six starts. Madcap Escapade started the year with a 16-1 score in a maiden race at Gulfstream and followed that up with three stakes wins as a favorite, including the Grade 1 Ashland. She lost the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks to Ashado, but her ROI was still a respectable $8.80 in five starts to earn division honors.

Three-year-old colt or gelding: Remember last spring when it seemed that every Derby prep race was being won by a longshot? Smarty Jones broke that trend on the Arkansas route and then won the Derby and Preakness as the favorite. Of course, with all his races as chalk, Smarty just had an ROI of $4.63 despite his 6-for-7 record. Birdstone's 36-1 upset in the Belmont and his Travers victory at 9-2, along with an allowance win at 1-5, put him at an impressive $14.67 ROI from six starts. But even that wasn't close to winning this value-laden category. Friends Lake's 37-1 win in the Florida Derby gave him a $19.20 ROI in four races, and that would normally win an ROI Award, but the title goes to Castledale, who scored at 30-1 in the Santa Anita Derby. His three-race ROI for the year comes out to $20.67.

Two-year-old filly: Sweet Catomine will win the Eclipse after capturing the BC Juvenile Fillies, but her ROI was just $4.45 on four races and she is beaten out here by BC Juvenile runner-up Balletto, who compiled a $9.54 ROI in five races, paced by a maiden-special-weight win at Belmont at 16-1.

Two-year-old colt or gelding: Declan's Moon knocked off Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Wilko in the Hollywood Futurity to likely win the Eclipse. He was also very impressive with an ROI of $13.25 in four starts, highlighted by a 14-1 score in a maiden special race at Del Mar. But Wilko gets the ROI Award based on a two-race ROI of $29.30, all of which comes from his $58.60 mutuel in the Juvenile.

Sprinter and ROI Horse of the Year: The ROI HOY traditionally goes to the horse with the biggest ROI regardless of number of races run, but the committee unanimously voted (yes, it was 1-0) to reward what it viewed as the best overall performance of the year. With his victory in the BC Sprint, Speightstown became one of the favorites for the Eclipse along with Pico Central, but Speightstown's ROI was just $6.67 based on his 5-of-6 record, as his highest odds were 5-1.

Look at Pico Central's year. He won a $100,000 optional claiming race via disqualification at Santa Anita at 37-1 (a win is a win, and the money spends the same). He then stepped up in class and won the Grade 2 San Carlos Handicap at 43-1 before winning two Grade 1 handicaps in New York, the Carter at Aqueduct and the Metropolitan at Belmont. He was favored in neither, going off at 4-1 and 3-1, respectively. In fact, the only two times Pico Central was favored in 2004, he lost. That's a value-bettor's dream. All told, he won five races for mutuel payoffs totaling $191.30, for an impressive ROI of $27.33 in seven races. For his ability to win at longshot odds, as well as being able to be a short-priced overlay in stakes races, he's the 2004 ROI HOY.

Thanks for attending this year's event. Be sure to tip your waitresses. And may you find value plays all year long.