12/26/2008 1:00AM

Will voters go for Jackson or IEAH?


NEW YORK - Big Brown and Curlin went off to stud without ever meeting on the racetrack, and there's no real Eclipse Award race between the two colts. Curlin will be the nation's champion older horse and Big Brown the champion 3-year-old in virtual walkovers, and the Horse of the Year contest is widely viewed as being between Curlin and Zenyatta, with Big Brown a distant third.

The two colts will, however, have at least a proxy Eclipse battle next month when one of their owners is likely to prevail in an unusually interesting race to be named the outstanding owner of 2008.

Curlin may be 3-5 to win Horse of the Year, but that's an entirely separate battle and one that historically has had little bearing on the owner award. The Horse of the Year has carried his owner to victory in that category only three times in the last 25 years: Allen Paulson with Cigar in 1995 and 1996, and Eugene Klein with Lady's Secret in 1986. Last year, when Curlin received 249 of the 266 HOTY votes, his owners received just six votes, compared with 144 for the victorious Shadwell Stable, 59 for Stronach Stable, and 18 for Maggi Moss.

The difference this year is that Jess Jackson, Curlin's majority owner, has been widely applauded for keeping the colt in training as a 4-year-old and mapping out an ambitious international campaign that propelled him past Cigar to become the richest American-based horse ever. Curlin ran in the major races a champion should, daring all comers to take him on in the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup, and ran in the Breeders' Cup Classic despite his handlers' well-founded misgivings about trying a synthetic track for his final career start.

Big Brown's principal owner, IEAH Stables, was perceived in a far less saintly light. Fairly or not, the somewhat sketchy backgrounds of some of IEAH's principals led to general public to perceive them as Wall Street operators rather than courtly gentlemen of the turf. More to the point, their unwillingness to run Big Brown in either the Woodward or Gold Cup made them appear to be ducking Curlin and trying to protect their colt's stud value instead of racing him where fans wanted to see him.

Yet by any standards of overall achievement, IEAH had a much stronger 2008 than Jackson, because there was a lot more to its year than Big Brown. If IEAH were more popular, it would win the award in a romp.

IEAH and its various partners won a staggering 11 Grade 1 races with eight different horses. In addition to Big Brown (Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Haskell) they campaigned Ariege (Santa Anita Oaks), Benny the Bull (Golden Shaheen), Court Vision (Hollywood Derby), Frost Giant (Suburban), Kip DeVille (Maker's Mark Mile), Laragh (Hollywood Starlet), and Pure Clan (American Oaks). Even without Big Brown, IEAH would be a major contender for the award and arguably more deserving than Jackson and the achievements of a single horse.

The Eclipse voters, whose ballots are due Jan. 5, may not fully appreciate the depth of IEAH's achievements because of the somewhat misleading way that owner statistics are presented when a stable has multiple partnership interests. Almost every horse who carries the IEAH colors has a different set of minority partners and investors, each of whom has to be treated separately. Even Curlin's earnings are credited separately to different entities because of changes in his official minority ownership during the season.

So in the statistics many voters are seeing, the highest IEAH-led entity is the one that also includes Paul Pompa Jr. and appears to rank only 20th nationally with $2.6 million in earnings, all of them Big Brown's. According to IEAH, its real total, including all partnerships and those seven other Grade 1 winners, is more than $10.6 million.

There has to be a better way to tabulate this data, and Daily Racing Form, one of the three organizations that presents the Eclipse awards, is working with the National Turf Writers Association and National Thoroughbred Racing Association on an improved presentation for next year.

In the meantime, voters this year are faced with a tricky call. It's understandable that they have an impulse to thank Jackson for racing rather than retiring Curlin, but it is impossible to deny that IEAH had by far a better overall year. When the envelope is opened in Miami Beach on Jan. 26, the outcome will be almost as interesting as if the owners' two star colts had ever lined up on the racetrack.