01/24/2004 12:00AM

Tight races add drama to big night

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HOLLYWOOD, Fla. - Mineshaft, who closed out his career with victories in three consecutive Grade 1 races, including the Jockey Club Gold Cup, is expected to be named Horse of the Year and champion older horse when the 33rd are announced at a black-tie dinner Monday night at the Westin Diplomat Resort and Spa.

Mineshaft is one of three finalists for champion older horse, along with Congaree and Medaglia d'Oro. No finalists were announced for Horse of the Year, to prevent sharp observers from divining some of the divisional champions.

The winners are chosen by a cumulative vote between members of the National Turf Writers' Association, racing secretaries and Equibase personnel from National Thoroughbred Racing Association member tracks, and writers and editors of Daily Racing Form.

All the winners, both equine and human, will be announced at the dinner. Several categories are slam dunks, such as Jerry Bailey for champion jockey. But the dinner should have plenty of dramatic moments, since a number of categories are considered toss-ups.

Most intriguing is the battle for champion older filly or mare, which pits Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year, against Sightseek, a four-time Grade 1 winner in Kentucky and New York last year. The two never met, which made the choice all the more difficult for voters.

Funny Cide, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, is considered a slight favorite to be named champion 3-year-old over Empire Maker, who stopped Funny Cide's Triple Crown bid in the Belmont Stakes. Both have passionate supporters.

Champion sprinter is also considered a close call between Cajun Beat, the Breeders' Cup Sprint winner, and Aldebaran, who was the top sprinter in the country for most of the year but was sixth as the favorite in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Congaree is the other finalist in this category.

Bird Town and Six Perfections are expected to vie for the title of champion 3-year-old filly. Six Perfections is also a finalist for champion female turf horse, along with Heat Haze and Islington.

To heighten the drama, voters were required to pick their top three in each division, so as to have three finalists announced for every category. That is why Ashado and Victory U. S. A. were announced as finalists with Halfbridled for champion 2-year-old filly, even though Halfbridled might very well have received every first-place vote. The horse with the most first-place votes in each category will be named champion.

High Chaparral and Johar - who finished in a dead heat in the Breeders' Cup Turf - are finalists for champion male turf horse along with Storming Home.

Action This Day, the winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, is a finalist for champion 2-year-old colt along with Birdstone and Cuvee.

Bobby Frankel is considered the favorite over Richard Mandella to win his fifth Eclipse Award. Bailey, Frankel's frequent collaborator, is almost certain to win a record seventh Eclipse Award as champion jockey.