01/22/2008 1:00AM

Toasting 2007 and looking ahead

Benoit & Associates
Accepting Curlin's Horse of the Year prize, owner Jess Jackson announced that he will race in 2008. "We need heroes," he said.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Breeding season begins in less than one month, and Curlin already has had three workouts at Fair Grounds. Do the math, and it was pretty obvious what the plans would be with Curlin for 2008. But for those who were still wondering if he would stay or if he would go, majority owner Jess Jackson made it official on Monday night at the 37th annual Eclipse Awards. Shortly after accepting Curlin's gold trophy as the 2007 Horse of the Year, Jackson announced that Curlin would indeed race this year.

In order to sell horse racing to a wider audience, "We need heroes," Jackson said. "And since we need them so badly, we've decided to race Curlin this year. We want to give the fans and the industry what we need."

Curlin was announced as Horse of the Year by Alex Waldrop, the president and chief executive officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, at the end of a ceremony that moved along crisply, and ended early, under first-time host Kenny Rice.

"I promise next year we will do our best to make this show longer," Rice cracked while bidding adieu to the overflow crowd of 635 that attended the black-tie dinner at the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons Hotel.

"For once, the NTRA will not be fielding complaints about the Eclipse Awards, and we're adding 45 minutes to the open bar," Waldrop said.

Curlin, whose biggest wins came in the Preakness Stakes and Breeders' Cup Classic, also was named champion 3-year-old male by Eclipse voters, who represent Daily Racing Form, the National Turf Writers Association, and the NTRA.

"He met a crop of some of the finest 3-year-olds in the history of racing," Jackson said.

Rags to Riches, who beat Curlin in the Belmont Stakes, was named champion 3-year-old filly. Her award was accepted by bloodstock agent Demi O'Byrne, who works with owners Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith. Like Curlin, Rags to Riches is remaining in training this year. Both 3-year-old awards were presented by actress Angie Dickinson ("Police Woman").

For sheer star wattage, though, actress Kim Delaney ("NYPD Blue," "Army Wives") radiated almost as much as trainer Carl Nafzger, who accompanied Delaney to the stage to present Eclipse Awards for champion owner and trainer.

Pausing a beat after arriving at the podium, Nafzger glanced at Delaney, then turned to the crowd and said simply, "Eat your heart out."

Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum's Shadwell Farms was named champion owner. Rick Nichols, who oversees Shadwell in Kentucky, accepted the award, and called it "the honor of a lifetime to represent this man and win this award."

Todd Pletcher got his fourth straight Eclipse Award as champion trainer, and said his individual award was due to the horses, most notably his Eclipse Award winners English Channel (male turf horse), Lawyer Ron (older male), and Rags to Riches.

Shadwell picked up a second award for Lahudood, who was named champion female turf horse.

The awards to English Channel and Lahudood were presented by Leslie Jordan, the elfin actor ("Will and Grace") who was a former exercise rider for Horatio Luro. Jim Scatuorchio, the owner, accepted the award for English Channel.

Lawyer Ron's award was accepted by his namesake, Ron Bamberger.

"This is vindication and an outstanding thank you for running him as a 4-year-old," Bamberger said.

Christina Olivares and Todd Schrupp of TVG presented the awards for older male and older female. Ginger Punch was named champion older female, and her award was accepted by owner Frank Stronach, who revealed how the mare was named.

"My favorite drink is ginger tea," he said. "I put in a little brandy, it's ginger punch."

Stronach's Adena Springs Farm was named champion breeder. That award was presented by Hank Zeitlin of Equibase, who also announced Good Night Shirt as champion steeplechaser.

Hal Via, the owner of Good Night Shirt, rambled on longer than anyone else on a night when acceptance speeches were gloriously brief. But realizing he had overstayed his welcome, Via exited gracefully. "My trainer," he said, referring to Jack Fisher, "says I'm out of time, just like I say I'm out of money."

The only other near-hiccup occurred when an overeager Laffit Pincay Jr., who presented champion jockey and apprentice jockey with another Hall of Fame rider, Gary Stevens, false-started and began to announce the Eclipse Award for apprentice jockey before a video of the three finalists ran. Stevens reached over and caught Pincay in time, and a grateful Pincay hugged Stevens as the video rolled.

Joe Talamo was named champion apprentice rider, and Garrett Gomez got his first Eclipse Award as champion jockey.

Gomez, who has resurrected his career after overcoming drug and alcohol problems, thanked "a place called Impact and the Winners Foundation."

"They gave me support to get my life back in order," Gomez said.

Indian Blessing, whom Gomez rode to victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, was named champion 2-year-old filly. Hal Earnhardt, who owns Indian Blessing with his wife, Patti, remarked that he loves racing so much, "I named my son Derby."

John and Brad Hennegan, the brothers who produced the sensational documentary "The First Saturday in May," presented the awards to both Indian Blessing and War Pass, the champion 2-year-old male.

Robert LaPenta, the owner of War Pass, said he hoped his colt could follow in the footsteps of Street Sense, who last year became the first winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile to capture the Kentucky Derby.

"Street Sense finally broke the Juvenile jinx," LaPenta said. "I can only hope lightning strikes twice. Go War Pass!"

Bill Farish of the Breeders' Cup and Bob Elliston of Turfway Park presented the awards for champion female and male sprinter, both of whom won Breeders' Cup races.

Maryfield was the winner of the inaugural female sprint title, and her trophy was accepted by co-owner Jim Perry.

Midnight Lute won the male sprint championship. His trophy was accepted by co-owner Karl Watson, who thanked trainer Bob Baffert "for managing this horse through three throat surgeries."

Steven Crist, publisher of Daily Racing Form, presented the Handicapper of the Year award to Stanley Bavlish, who won last year's National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas.

Crist also presented a special Eclipse Award to the Kentucky Horse Park, the longtime home of John Henry. John Nicholson, the executive director of the horse park, said the outpouring of emotion for John Henry after his death last October was "a symbol of the great love and affection people have for horses."

Those qualities were exemplified by journalist Bill Mooney, who was one of several media winners who received their previously announced awards on Monday night from Tom Law, the president of the turf writers association.

Mooney won for a column he wrote on the final days and minutes of Hall of Fame racehorse Precisionist, who resided at Old Friends, a retirement home for horses in Kentucky. Mooney called Michael Blowen, the founder of Old Friends, to the podium, then generously gave his Eclipse Award to Blowen.

"I'm donating this to be put on permanent display at Old Friends," said Mooney, who said he was touched by the way Precisionist was allowed to live "his final days in comfort and dignity."

"Take good care of it," Mooney said to Blowen, "just like you took good care of Precisionist."