Andy Stronach, Elfrieda Stronach, Larry King and Frank Stronach at the 34th Annual Eclipse Awards.

Andy Stronach, Elfrieda Stronach, Larry King and Frank Stronach at the 34th Annual Eclipse Awards.

Wally Skalij

The Eclipse Dinner: A Ghost in the Night

Smarty Jones grabbed most of the headlines in 2004, but it was Ghostzapper who earned the coveted gold Eclipse Award trophy and was named Horse of the Year for 2004 at the Eclipse Awards ceremony Jan. 24.

Stronach Stables' homebred Ghostzapper, unbeaten in four starts and winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I), was a clear winner in the Horse of the Year balloting. Frank Stronach's Adena Springs was honored as leading breeder, and yes, Ghostzapper was named top older male as well, giving the Stronach family an armload of hardware by evening's end.

Ghostzapper out-pointed Smarty Jones 174-95 in the voting, with both Kitten's Joy and Ashado receiving one vote for Horse of the Year. The voting for the second year in a row was a combined ballot total of the National Turf Writers Association, Daily Racing Form, and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

"I hope my cup doesn't runneth over," Stronach said following the Horse of the Year announcement. "Smarty Jones was extremely popular, but the older division is tough. One should ask the breeders whom they would like to breed to--the horse that was the most popular or the one that was the best racehorse. The older competition is fierce."

Trainer Bobby Frankel was optimistic Ghostzapper would be named Horse of the Year prior to the ceremony. He pointed to the fact Ghostzapper was recently named the top ranked horse on the World Thoroughbred Racehorse Rankings.

"It would be interesting if he was voted the best horse in the world and wasn't voted best horse in America," Frankel said. "Both horses deserve it and it won't be a bust either way."

John Servis, trainer of Roy and Patricia Chapman's Smarty Jones, made his case for his 3-year-old star prior to the dinner at the Thoroughbred Publicists of America's luncheon.

"It comes down to how you define the category," Servis said. "Is it the horse that ran the fastest Beyer number? Is it the horse that made the most money? Or was it the horse that did the most for racing? If Ghostzapper is Horse of the Year, it will be on every racing publication around. If Smarty Jones is Horse of the Year, it will be on every sports page across America. That's the difference."

Team Smarty wasn't shut out on the evening. The Kentucky Derby (gr. I)- and Preakness (gr. I)-winning son of Elusive Quality was named champion 3-year-old male.

Pat Chapman received the award for Smarty Jones. "Thank you from Chappy (Roy) and me," she said. "Speaking of Chappy, many of you have been asking about him, and I want to let you all know that this sickly automobile dealer you keep reading about is very much alive and doing very well.

"And the Pha," she said, speaking of Philadelphia Park where the Smarty Jones started his race track career. "My gosh. What a long way we've come."

The Belmont Stakes (gr. I), in which Smarty Jones met defeat for the only time in his racing career while making a bid for the Triple Crown to Birdstone, was named the NTRA Moment of the Year.

While the evening at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel belonged mainly to Stronach, breeder and owner Ken Ramsey made an emotional statement regarding his recent $25,000 fine and seven-day suspension by the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority for improperly influencing a fellow owner to scratch a horse.

After his Kitten's Joy was named outstanding turf male, Ramsey issued the following statement from the podium:

"I feel compelled to state my feelings regarding a recent incident I was involved in," Ramsey said. "My parents always taught me that a man's good name was more precious than fame and riches. I truly believe that with all my heart. I try to pass that ideal along to my children and grandchildren as some thing to live up to. I've tried to practice that in my personal life and my business life. However, my recent actions tarnished my good name. By extension, it's tarnished my family's name and also the good name of horseracing.

"I've made many friends in my trips to the winner's circle and on the backstretch. The media and fans this past year have embraced Katherine and myself. I'm deeply appreciative. It's something that will never be forgotten. I almost have a love affair with the media. One of them told me it pained them, but they had to do their job and report the sad story. Each of you, my family, my friends, the racing industry, and the media, I truly apologize, and I ask, please forgive me."

In an ironic twist later in the evening, Ken and Sarah Ramsey won a second Eclipse Award after being named top owner over Michael Gill and Stronach Stables.

Trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez had big evenings, both being named a champion in their respective categories. Eugene and Laura Melnyk's Speightstown was named champion sprinter and Starlight Stables, Paul Saylor, and Johns Martin's Ashado earned top honors as top 3-year-old filly. Both Speightstown and Ashado were trained by Pletcher and ridden by Velazquez in their Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championship victories.

Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year, earned her third straight Eclipse as champion older female after winning three grade I races in 2004. Michael Paulson, son of the late Allen Paulson, was overcome with joy.

"She's got a beautiful soul," Paulson said. When asked where her place is in history, he replied: "I'll leave that up to the historians, but look at her record. She's one of the greatest racehorses of all time."

With the event taking place in Beverly Hills, there were several celebrity presenters on the evening. Jerry O'Connell, one of the stars of "Crossing Jordan" and a self-professed horseplayer, emceed the evening that was televised live for the first time on TVG. O'Connell broke the ice early noting the telecast would "have a 10-second delay in case D. Wayne Lukas has a wardrobe malfunction."

Other luminaries from both the Turf and from television and film announced finalists and handed out awards. Merv Griffin, Larry King, and comedic actor Leslie Jordan took the stage representing Hollywood. From racing, Joe Harper of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, and jockeys Julie Krone and Laffit Pincay Jr. presented awards. James E. "Ted" Bassett III honored Charles J. Cella with his Eclipse of Merit, while Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg honored Dale Baird with the Special Eclipse Award. Van Berg has trained more winners than any trainer in history except Baird, who went past the 9,000-win plateau in 2004.

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