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Jan 29, 2004

Racing Today

By: John Piesen


Mineshaft, to no one"s surprise, was officialy confirmed the 2003 Horse of the Year at Monday

evening"s black-tie gala in Hollywood, Fla.

But I just wonder if -- down the road -- this talented horse will be remembered as a champion...or

as the horse who saved his championship by ducking the Breeders" Cup Classic.

Hey, maybe I"m wrong. Maybe the horse did get hurt while training up to the Classic, as his connections

claimed. But all I know is that if you check the archives, you"ll find a John Piesen column back in

September that says the horse wasn"t going to the Breeders" Cup.

Their strategy worked. Mineshaft ducked the Classic, and since the Classic winner, Pleasantly Perfect, won

nothing else all year, he had no shot. I"m glad Pleasantly Perfect won. I had him on my websites and in

the pocket. But it would have been interesting to see what would have happened in the voting if

Medaglia d"Oro or Congaree had won the Classic.

As it turned out, Mineshaft received 209 votes from the electorate, and Congaree was second with a measly

11.

It also will be interesting to see if they announce who voted against Halfbridled for 2-year-old filly. Halfbridled

received 247 votes and Ashado got one vote. There"s always one clown. The guy or gal who voted for Ashado

should never again have the privilege of voting in the Eclipse Awards.

Otherwise, I was surprised at Funny Cide"s margin of victory (150-92) over Empire Maker. I thought the voting

would be much closer. I guess every once-a-year racegoer voted for Funny Cide. Years from now, it will be

hard to justify how a horse who won two of eight starts could be a champion.

From a purely selfish point of view, the Eclipse Awards for Funny Cide and Azeri are terrific. As usual, I"m

spending the season working at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., and I love to see good horses come

through.

The connections of Funny Cide have told Oaklawn management that they intend to run Funny Cide in the

Oaklawn Handicap. And new trainer D. Wayne Lukas has dropped hints he may run Azeri in the Apple Blossom

on the same day (April 3). Azeri would try to become the first mare in history to win three Apple Blossoms if, indeed, she

does come to Hot Springs.

Otherwise, four Eclipse Awards went to Breeders" Cup winners. They are -- in addition to

Halfbridled -- Action This Day, High Chaparral and Islington.Bird Town eked out a 96-94 decision over Breeders" Cup

Mile winner Six Perfections for 3-year-old filly, and Aldebaran justifiably won Eclipse sprinter by a substantial

margin (137-74) over Breeders" Cup Sprint winner Cajun Beat.

And, don"t think for a minute, that the connections of the Eclipse winners didn"t know in advance that their

horses won. For example, the Europe-based connections of Islington invited friends from throughout the world

to join them at the dinner.

This is interesting because the Eclipse people try to make you believe no one knows the identity of the winners

in advance.

With this in mind, permit me a personal note. The whole process of naming the Eclipse winners was changed

because, years back, this correspondent twice broke the Horse of the Year before the official announcements.

That wasn"t the case at all.

The first time occurred when Horse of the Year was a tossup between Seattle Slew and Affirmed in 1978. It could

have gone either way. This was my first year as racing writer for the New York Post, and I was just waiting, like

everyone else, for the official announcement.

Then, one day, while leaving Aqueduct, I was approached by jockey Jean Cruguet. Cruguet, who had been

disposed by Angel Cordero Jr. as Slew"s rider, asked my opinion.

"I don"t know," I said. "What about you?"

"Ah," said Cruguet, "I don"t know. But I do know who eez not the Horse of the Year!"

Bingo.

What Cruguet was telling me was obviously that if Seattle Slew was not Horse of the Year, then Affirmed was.

And it figured that Cruguet knew because Peb, one of his closest friends from the old country, had told him.

Peb, the greatest cartoonist in the world, knew because he was assigned by Daily Racing Form to sketch the

winner.

So I called Greg Gallo, my editor at the Post, and excitedly told him what I had.

What should I do?

"Write it," he said.

So I wrote the story...and the you-know-what hit the fan.

The piece led the paper, and the outrage started within minutes. I was called every name in the book, and then

some. They accused me of guessing. Of having a contact on the inside at the Form. And, as I said earlier, of

breaking the release date.

None of this was true of course. It was just good journalism. But I had to sit back and take the criticism. And

think about how I could do the same thing again.

My opportunity came in 1985.

In "85, I developed a friendship with Dennis Diaz, the owner of Kentucky Derby winner Spend A Buck. Since

Spend A Buck hadn"t done much else that year, he was merely one of several candidates for Horse of the Year.

As the announcement of HOY drew near, I decided to take a shot. After a couple of beers at a joint on Queens

Boulevard, I placed a call to Diaz in Tampa.

"Congratulations," I said to Diaz.

"Thank you very much," Diaz replied.

Double bingo.

I spent the next several minutes feverishly recording quotes from Diaz with one hand while cradling the pay phone

to my neck with the other.

After hanging up, I called Gallo, and tokld him what I had.

"Write it," he said.

And so I did, adlibbing a 600-word story to a deskman.

Again it hit the fan. And again I sat back and enjoyed it. I knew I was right. They weren"t about to change the

winner to spite me.

There were a lot of jealous colleagues.

But so what?



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