Woodward's field one for the books Talent matchup today almost unparalleled

September 19, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ELMONT, N.Y. -- Joe Hirsch, the distinguished turf writer, pondered the question.

"Is it the greatest field of all time?"

"No," he said.

He scanned his file-cabinet mind for a field better than today's meeting of Skip Away, Free House, Gentlemen and Coronado's Quest in the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park. He reached back to the Brooklyn Handicap at Aqueduct -- in 1917.

That race included three Kentucky Derby winners -- Old Rosebud, Omar Khayyam and Regret -- and three champion older horses -- Borrow, Roamer and Stromboli. Borrow won. He was 9.

Hirsch, executive columnist of the Daily Racing Form, also considered past Woodwards and their stellar roster of 17 winners who wore racing's cherished crown: Horse of the Year. It includes Cigar (twice), Holy Bull, Alysheba, Spectacular Bid, Affirmed, Forego (twice), Damascus, Kelso (three times) and Sword Dancer.

"The Woodward over the years has been one of the greatest lures for attracting quality horses," Hirsch said. "This field ranks as one of the best of the best."

The Woodward's success is its timing. It falls in late summer when racing's most talented 3-year-olds begin venturing out against the sports' older stars. But it doesn't occur so late that the older stars have succumbed to their year-long campaigns.

Today's Woodward features the classic matchup of a smashing 3-year-old, Coronado's Quest, against older horses for the first time. But it features much more.

Skip Away and Gentlemen are nearing the ends of their careers. You can find handicappers who believe the best of both -- yes, Skip Away, too -- are a thing of the past.

Free House seems to be at his peak. His two races this year have been nothing short of sensational.

Coronado's Quest, also soon to retire, swept the summer jewels for 3-year-olds: the Haskell Invitational Handicap and Travers Stakes. And Running Stag, the mystery horse of the Woodward, has arrived from France with a reputation as the best dirt horse in Europe. Nevertheless, he seems hopelessly overmatched.

For starters, consider Coronado's Quest. He is owned primarily by Stuart S. Janney III, who lives in Baltimore County.

Shug McGaughey, who trains the colt, won the Woodward twice with 3-year-olds: Polish Navy in 1987 and Easy Goer two years later. Three-year-olds have won 13 of the 44 Woodwards.

"The 3-year-old this time of year should be on the improve," McGaughey said. "I keep looking back to Cigar when Skip Away came in here and beat him after he'd had a long campaign."

In 1996, when Skip Away was 3, he upset Cigar in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. That was in October, three weeks after the Woodward.

But McGaughey acknowledged this about Polish Navy and Easy Goer: "They sure weren't running against the kind of horses Coronado's Quest is going to run against. This might be, horse for horse, as tough a race as I've ever been in."

With Mike Smith, the regular jockey of Coronado's Quest, sidelined with two broken vertebrae, Pat Day will ride the colt. McGaughey said Day was his first choice as substitute.

"Knowing Pat, and knowing his riding tendencies, I thought he would really fit a horse like Coronado's Quest, who could be on the lead or could be stalking the speed," McGaughey said. "Also, been in these situations time and time again."

If Coronado's Quest is to extend his five-race win streak, he'll do it at the expense of Skip Away, who has won eight straight. Skip Away hasn't lost since last year's Woodward, when Formal Gold smoked him by 5 1/2 lengths.

But in his last race, the 1 1/8 -mile Iselin Handicap, Skip Away, the 1-20 favorite, nearly lost to Stormin Fever, a capable allowance horse. Skip Away lost the lead in the stretch, but then recharged his engines to win by a nose.

Skip Away carried 131 pounds, 18 more than Stormin Fever. Still, Skip Away's time of 1 minute, 47 1/5 seconds was a mere two-fifths of a second off the track record.

What's more, Skip Away ran with sore front legs from a reaction to a poultice, said his trainer, Sonny Hine. According to Hine, Skip Away had raced previously weak from fevers, sore from swollen ankles and nearly hobbled by torn-up hooves.

"He's an amazing horse," Hine said. "He overcomes everything."

Skip Away has competed four years with few breaks, winning 17 of 35 races and finishing worse than third only three times. He has earned $9.2 million, far more than the next-richest American horse in training, Silver Charm with $4.8 million.

With victories today and then Oct. 10 in the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup, Skip Away could surpass Cigar's career earnings record of $9,999,815.

"I'm hearing that some people think they might be catching Skip Away when he's tailing off," Hine said. "You know what I say to them? Think again."

Many handicappers also believe Gentlemen has tailed off.

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