12/15/2004 12:00AM

Year's top trainer? Hint: Not Pletcher

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PHILADELPHIA - It is that time again, time to get out the Eclipse Award ballot and start filling in the blanks. Some of the categories are obvious. Some are so close there is no right or wrong answer.

And then there is top trainer.

Many have already conceded the Eclipse Award as leading trainer to Todd Pletcher. Why?

At some point, the leading trainer just became the man whose horses won the most money. Again, why?

Pletcher absolutely had a wonderful year. He capped it by winning his first two Breeders' Cup races, the Distaff with Ashado and the Sprint with Speightstown, making him the first trainer to win those two races in the same year.

Through Sunday, Pletcher had won 236 races. The stable had earned a season's best $17.3 million, nearly $700,000 more than Bobby Frankel's stable, in second place.

Is that enough to make Pletcher a lock, especially in a year with a singular achievement?

Jack Van Berg set the record for winners in a single year back in 1976. His mark of 496 winners had not really been threatened in the interim. After alternating at the top of the win standings in recent years with Scott Lake, Steve Asmussen set off after the record this year. He did not just beat the record. He blew it away.

Through Sunday, Asmussen had 535 winners. When Van Berg set the record, he had 2,362 starters. Through Sunday, Asmussen had 2,210 starters. So he broke the record with far fewer starters than the former record holder.

Trying to compare what Pletcher did to what Asmussen did, of course, is comparing apples to oranges, sort of like trying to compare Ghostzapper to Smarty Jones for Horse of the Year.

There really is no basis for comparison. The voters are given no guidelines. Every vote is completely subjective.

If you like Pletcher, you say this is a sport in which the big races matter most. You also point out that he won 43 graded stakes, including six Grade 1 stakes. If you don't like Pletcher, you say he had access to better horses that were capable of winning the big races. You say anybody could have won with those horses. You would be shortchanging Pletcher, but you could say it.

If you like Asmussen, you say he broke what looked like an unbreakable record. You could also point out that he is third in earnings with $13.6 million. You could say he won 14 graded stakes in addition to all those claiming races. You could say managing such a far-flung operation is almost impossible, but he did it better than anyone else ever has. If you don't like Asmussen, you say he was just running horses all over the place and wasn't really "training" them. You say he started so many horses that he had to win tons of races.

Of course, you could always say, hey, John Servis nearly won the Triple Crown with Smarty Jones and is fourth in earnings with $8.9 million (yes, the $5 million bonus Smarty won surely helped).

Me? I am voting for Asmussen. Most of what Pletcher did has been done before. In fact, somebody leads the country in money won every year.

Asmussen did something that had never been done. He sent out more than 500 winners. He will be in the vicinity of 560 winners at year's end. That's nearly 50 winners per month, an almost impossible pace, a pace that makes slumps impossible to overcome.

And it is that consistency that might be the most important part of Asmussen's 2004 season. Day after day, week after week, month after month, Asmussen's horses won races. They have also run second or third nearly 700 times. To summarize the numbers, Asmussen's horses through Sunday had been in the money in 1,222 of 2,210 races. That is certainly worthy of significant recognition. On my ballot, Steve Asmussen will be on the top line in the category that reads, simply, "Trainer."