The awards for the leading thoroughbred owner of 1987 almost surely will go to Eugene Klein -- or, if not, to someone as rich as he is. The most prominent owners are always the people who can afford to buy the best-bred horses in the largest numbers. Their main functions are to sign the checks and to smile prettily in the winner's circle.

It has always seemed (to me, at least) a pointless and redundant exercise to honor somebody simply because he or she has a lot of money. That's why my Eclipse Award vote is going to go to an owner who has earned his success with intelligence, hard work and guts. There is nobody in the American racing game today quite like Glenn Lane.

Lane approaches the sport the way serious bettors do: by poring over racing forms, speed figures and other data. But instead of taking his opinions to the betting windows, he uses them as the basis for claiming horses and managing them.

Lane is the fourth-ranked race-winning owner in the country this year. Marylanders have had a chance to observe his work first-hand since he moved the largest branch of his operation to Maryland this fall under the care of trainer Dennis Heard. But Lane's great triumph -- one which epitomizes his methods and embodies the dream of everyone who has ever claimed a horse -- was his claim of a colt named Parochial in New Jersey this summer.

Lane starts each day by studying the speed-figure "sheets" produced by Len Ragozin of New York, looking for horses who might be worth more than the claiming price they are running for. When he finds one who looks interesting, he'll study the Daily Racing Form and judge the way the current trainer is managing the animal.

Does it appear that the trainer wants to get rid of the horse? In the case of a young horse, Lane will study the pedigree for clues about the potential of the animal. Then he will consult with his trainer. If the horse in question is running in Maryland, Lane will telephone Heard and ask what he thinks about the horse's physical condition and current form.

Most of the time, even a successful claim will yield relatively modest results. In September at Pimlico, Lane claimed Alexandra's Tower for $5,000. The filly registered two victories and a second-place finish in her next three starts, earning $8,430 -- not bad for such a cheap horse.

The purses in Maryland are one of the reasons Lane moved so many of his horses to the state. ("I'm surprised," he said, "that not more people have realized how good things are here.") Even so, a horse like Alexandra's Tower isn't going to change an owner's life. A horse like Parochial could.

As soon as he saw the sprinter entered in a $50,000 claiming race at Monmouth Park in August, Lane was interested: "He'd been running in tough allowance races where his figures were good enough to win minor stakes; at worst, he'd be a $75,000 claimer in New York. But what really intrigued me was that he'd never run a distance on the dirt; the only time he'd run long was on the grass, and he'd bled. And he had a pedigree to run a distance."

Lane claimed Parochial for $50,000, and found what he thought was a wonderfully esoteric place to run him next -- the $100,000 Fairmount Park Derby in East St. Louis, Ill. It happened that he also had a filly in a stakes at Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky., on the same day, and in order to see both horses run Lane indulged himself.

"I chartered a small jet so we could get to both races," Lane said. "It was something I never dreamed I'd ever do. We got to the paddock at Ellis Park and who was there? Eugene Klein. Wayne Lukas {Klein's trainer} had found this race, too.

"After our horse ran second, we hopped on the plane to East St. Louis, and I was thinking that this was the experience of a lifetime when we taxied up to the terminal and saw the most elegant private jet you can imagine -- painted in Eugene Klein's racing colors. The experience of a lifetime for us was a routine weekend for him."

Klein's horse was the favorite at Fairmount, but Parochial rallied to beat him by a neck, breaking the track record for 1 1/8 miles and recouping Lane's investment all at once.

This performance emboldened Lane to take another shot, and he sent Parochial to Louisiana for a meeting with Alysheba in the $1 million Super Derby. The ex-claimer finished third, beaten by only two lengths, earning another $110,000.

Lane likes to give his horses plenty of time between races, and he waited two months before he ran Parochial in the Grade III Discovery Handicap at Aqueduct. The colt delivered a powerful performance, winning by nearly three lengths in time that put him in the class of the best horses of his generation. (His speed figure was similar to that of Ferdinand and Alysheba in the Breeders' Cup Classic.)

Lane is planning to run Parochial next in the famed Widener Handicap at Hialeah and the $500,000 Strub Stakes at Santa Anita. Maybe he could use the proceeds for a down payment on his own private jet.