Cup lifts curtain on 7-act drama Some stars missing, but cast's depth all but guarantees a hit

November 08, 1997|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- The previous two Breeders' Cups belonged to Cigar, the revered thoroughbred born in Maryland.

He won the Classic two years ago at Belmont Park for the 12th of his eventual 16 victories in a row. Last year at Woodbine, he concluded a career that still rings clear with a courageous, closing charge for third.

Today, Singspiel could have ruled racing's championship day at Hollywood Park near Los Angeles. But on Thursday, the marvelous Irish-bred who had won major races on four continents broke a bone in his foot.

To a Breeders' Cup already depleted by more late injuries than any previous Cup, Singspiel's loss was a crushing blow. For this, the 14th renewal, the casualty list includes Gentlemen, Marlin, Silver Maiden, Influent, Twice the Vice and, finally, Singspiel.

But the Breeders' Cup is not Rembrandt's massive painting "The Nightwatch." It is a series of smaller Van Goghs, seven distinct splashes of color and drama -- and impressionism, if one can adapt the word to a horse race, where one's impression of the impending drama is its own art form.

When perhaps 50,000 people swarm to Hollywood Park for the richest day in racing history (Breeders' Cup purses of $11.71 million), no drama will loom larger than the 1 1/4 -mile Classic.

With a purse of $4.4 million, it will be the first horse race worth more than $4 million. Also, it will play a major role in deciding which North American thoroughbred joins Cigar, Citation and Secretariat on that prestigious honor roll known as Horse of the Year.

Skip Away is the Classic's early 2-1 favorite, but he will likely have his hands full with a trio of 3-year-olds on the verge of stardom: Behrens, Deputy Commander and Touch Gold.

Whereas Silver Charm, Captain Bodgit and Free House developed early and dominated the 3-year-old class the first half of the year, these three matured later and took over the second half.

Behrens and Deputy Commander battled furiously in the Travers until Deputy Commander prevailed by a nose. Deputy Commander then dominated the Super Derby at Louisiana Downs, and Behrens rebounded by trouncing Touch Gold in the Pegasus at the Meadowlands.

"I've told people all summer how great this horse is," trainer H. James Bond said of Behrens, a son of Pleasant Colony. "After this race, I'm not going to have to speak for him anymore. He's going to speak for himself."

Bond said he believes Skip Away has tailed off in his last four races, even though Skip Away romped three weeks ago in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.

"There was nothing in that race," Bond said, "after Siphon gave it up."

Siphon, Skip Away's main challenger, injured an ankle.

Bond also said Touch Gold's left front foot, injured in the Preakness, may have finally taken its toll on the extremely talented son of Deputy Minister. In his last race, the Pegasus on Sept. 20, Touch Gold finished last, 16 troubling lengths behind Behrens.

"The track that night was like pavement," said David Hofmans, Touch Gold's trainer. "It hurt his foot. It stung him very, very much."

After the race the protective patch on Touch Gold's foot was replaced yet again. Hofmans prepared him for the Breeders' Cup with workouts. And now Hofmans, a skilled and conservative trainer, said: "He's ready to run."

Wally Dollase, trainer of Deputy Commander, also a son of Deputy Minister, has covered all bases. He sent the colt onto the track yesterday and Thursday with a gray pony.

"Riders tell me some of the time gray horses antagonize other horses," Dollase said. "I have no idea why. But I wanted my horse to get used to running by a gray horse."

Why? Because Skip Away is gray. Breaking from the 1 post, Skip Away will likely bolt for the lead, claim the inside and dare anyone to challenge him wide.

Carolyn and Sonny Hine, owner and trainer of Skip Away, paid $480,000 to supplement their gray powerhouse to the race.

"We didn't do it for us," said Carolyn Hine, a native of Highlandtown who now lives in Florida and New Jersey.

"We did it for Skippy [her nickname for the horse]. We want what's best for the best, and he's the best."

The winner of the Classic could be voted Horse of the Year. But that might depend on how a 2-year-old colt named Favorite Trick runs two races earlier in the $1 million Juvenile.

Favorite Trick has not lost in seven races. If the son of Phone Trick wins today, he could become the first 2-year-old Horse of the Year since Secretariat.

"I don't know whether I'd put him in that class," said his jockey, Pat Day. "But he's a freakishly good colt."

A drama involving the trainer of Favorite Trick will spice the Juvenile and two other races.

Patrick Byrne, a hard-knocking trainer at Churchill Downs in the midst of his greatest year, will likely saddle three favorites: Favorite Trick, Countess Diana in the $1 million Juvenile Fillies and Richter Scale in the $1 million Sprint.

Byrne, whose three entrants this year are 14-for-16, could become the second trainer to win three Breeders' Cup races in one day.

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