Cup drama heavy with subplots

Strong foreign cast, security add intrigue

October 27, 2001|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ELMONT, N.Y. - For the 18th annual Breeders' Cup - the spectacular series of racing today at Belmont Park - officials changed the name to the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships.

At first blush that seemed as presumptuous as calling our national baseball playoffs the World Series. The Breeders' Cup is primarily an event for American horses, with a few adventurous Europeans tossed in. And it is not a championship.

Although a Breeders' Cup win is often a precursor to a championship, North American champions are not crowned until after the new year in Eclipse Award balloting.

This year, however, the Breeders' Cup is truly international in scope. The strongest contingent of European horses since the inception of the Breeders' Cup in 1984 has ventured across the ocean to challenge the best thoroughbreds on this continent.

And in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, a mere 20 miles from Belmont, this sporting event has attracted unprecedented attention.

Security will be severe. No planes or helicopters will be allowed overhead. Rental trucks will be turned away. Bags will be searched. Police presence will be heavy.

Participants seem relieved at the extraordinary measures. People are looking over their shoulders, wondering what might happen next.

"The way the world is right now," said Tom Albertrani, assistant trainer for Godolphin Racing, "you don't know where the safest place is."

Godolphin is based in Dubai, the oil-rich sheikdom on the Persian Gulf. Although it sent its best horses to the Breeders' Cup, its principals have opted to stay home. The Maktoum family, which has built Godolphin into an international racing powerhouse, rules the wealthy emirate of Dubai.

Although 20 of the 98 horses entered in the eight Breeders' Cup races are owned by Arabs, no Arab owners will attend the Breeders' Cup, according to Breeders' Cup and New York racing officials.

Some wouldn't normally attend. The Maktoums usually do, as does Prince Ahmed bin Salman, who owns a potential star, Officer, as well as a recently retired star, Point Given.

A member of the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, the prince owns a large publishing company. Last week, its Arabic-language newspaper in London received two envelopes containing white powder. The powder was found to be safe.

As the sheiks and princes remain home, their horses provide one of the subplots that perennially color the Breeders' Cup.

Competition between the Europeans and Americans is always crisp, but this year, with the presence of Fantastic Light, Galileo and Sakhee, intrigue reigns supreme.

"I think they're the best horses in the world," said Albertrani, who trains two of the three, Fantastic Light and Sakhee.

Albertrani's judgment is based on their performances on turf. None has ever raced on dirt. Yet two will test the surface for the first time in the Breeders' Cup, and bettors around the world will hold their breath awaiting the results.

Galileo, the Ireland-based 3-year-old who has won six of seven races, will compete in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic, as will Sakhee, the 4-year-old Godolphin colt who garnered international acclaim with a smashing triumph three weeks ago in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Fantastic Light, a 5-year-old who has captured classic races around the world, will represent Godolphin in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf.

As international as this Breeders' Cup is, it is also local. Horses not only represent America, but also states and racetracks. Two horses stabled at Laurel Park in Maryland will compete in races requiring performances bordering on heroic.

The Maryland-bred Include could make his owner, Robert E. Meyerhoff, the first owner to win the Breeders' Cup Classic twice. In 1994, Meyerhoff's Concern roared from last to snare the Classic, then worth $3 million, by a neck.

Grover G. "Bud" Delp trains Include, and he says the 4-year-old son of Broad Brush is the second-best horse he's trained, behind the immortal Spectacular Bid, who some, with Delp, say is the greatest horse to look through a bridle.

"I think I have a chance to win the race," Delp said. "So does Aptitude. So do eight or nine horses. It's the Classic, my goodness. They're all good horses."

Aptitude races for trainer Bobby Frankel, who provides the Breeders' Cup its next sub-plot. Despite his Hall of Fame status, two Eclipse awards and rousing respect from peers, Frankel has not won a Breeders' Cup race in 36 attempts.

With horses in six races, Frankel has his best chances with Aptitude in the Classic, You in the Juvenile Fillies and the 3-year-old Flute in the Distaff, the first of the Breeders' Cup stakes.

Flute, a gorgeous filly with an adorable face, has become Frankel's love interest. A native New Yorker not overly sentimental, he says that Flute is so human-like that she must have been reincarnated. He says that he believes she was put on earth for him to win a Breeders' Cup race.

The second horse from Maryland with a Herculean assignment is Xtra Heat, a 3-year-old filly trained by John Salzman at Laurel. Xtra Heat is small but fast - freakishly fast. How fast is a question that will be answered when she runs in the Sprint against 13 colts and geldings.

The final sub-plot involves one of the youngest horses in the Breeders' Cup, with the potential for making perhaps the longest-lasting mark upon the sport. The undefeated Officer, flashy winner of five races, will showcase his talent in the Juvenile. His likewise-flashy trainer, Bob Baffert, says Officer is the best 2-year-old he's trained.

"He reminds me a lot of Seattle Slew," Baffert said. "I think it's the way he covers ground. I don't know. He's got that look. He's got extra brilliance."

Breeders' Cup

What: Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships

When: Today

Where: Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y.

Races: Eight stakes worth $13 million

Feature: $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic

TV: Chs. 11, 4, 1-6 p.m.

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