Racing puts its best feet forward

`Olympics' of the sport, today's Breeders' Cup promises dash, drama

Horse Racing

October 26, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - The 19th Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships will take place today at Arlington Park with more story lines than a soap opera.

Its eight races worth nearly $14 million will decide Horse of the Year, anoint the early Kentucky Derby favorite and showcase American horses from coast to coast, as well as the classiest horses from Europe.

"There is no doubt this is the Olympics of horse racing," said Aidan O'Brien, the Irish trainer. "I think this brings the world together if the European horses come to race against the Americans."

Although the Breeders' Cup is held each fall on North American soil, it has increasingly become an international event. Europe's top stables target it with fresh horses instead of weary steeds at the end of long and demanding seasons.

O'Brien, 33, who trains at the fabled Ballydoyle center in County Tipperary, brought seven horses this year after bringing a combined 14 the previous four years. His seven-horse Breeders' Cup stable matches in number that of American powerhouses Bob Baffert and Bobby Frankel.

It might surpass them in quality, but that won't be known until such European stars as Rock of Gibraltar and High Chapparal race on American turf for the first time, and such intriguing runners as Hold That Tiger and Hawk Wing sink their hooves for the first time into American dirt.

Light rain fell Thursday and yesterday at Arlington Park, which is about 25 miles northwest of Chicago. The forecast for today calls for partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the low 50s. The dirt and turf tracks will likely contain moisture, but probably not enough to label them anything but fast and firm.

The news flash yesterday was that the undefeated Sky Mesa, likely favorite in the Juvenile, was withdrawn because of swelling in his right front ankle. The colt's trainers, Donna and John Ward, said the injury appeared to be a sprain. X-rays came back negative for a fracture.

The Juvenile for 2-year-olds produces the early Kentucky Derby favorite, although no Juvenile winner has ever won the Derby. The defection of Sky Mesa means that Toccet, the Laurel-based colt trained by John Scanlan, moves in one slot and breaks from post 13 instead of 14. Outside posts in the Juvenile usually spell trouble, or at least a wide, adventurous trip.

Xtra Heat, the other Maryland runner, remained as laid-back as ever as she awaited her second try in the Sprint. The small but tenacious filly finished second last year at odds of 17-1. She will be much more popular at the betting windows today. Her 24 wins in 31 races and earnings of $2.2 million have won over much of the racing world.

"She's ready. Everything's good," said John Salzman, her trainer and part-owner. "The whole race sets up for pressure every step of the way. Whoever wins is going to have to run the entire way. It's just a tough race. The Sprint's always tough."

Xtra Heat will be offered for sale Nov. 3 at a thoroughbred auction in Lexington, Ky. If she meets her $2.2 million reserve - the price at which she would be sold - the Sprint will be her last race for her Maryland owners, who bought her two years ago for $5,000.

The $4 million Classic, the richest race in North America, headlines the Breeders' Cup extravaganza and showcases this country's top 3-year-olds - the survivors of the Triple Crown grind - and a 3-year-old from Europe who was hailed a superstar at the beginning of the year.

The O'Brien-trained Hawk Wing was so highly regarded this spring that his record of one win and four seconds in five Group I races has been a disappointment. However, the Kentucky-bred colt raced only on soft turf when firm ground was what he seemed to want. O'Brien says he hopes the dirt at Arlington will be the surface Hawk Wing has coveted all year.

The American contingent in the Classic includes the 3-year-olds War Emblem, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness; Medaglia d'Oro, winner of the Travers Stakes; Perfect Drift, third in the Kentucky Derby; Came Home, winner of nine of 11 races, and Harlan's Holiday, the beaten Kentucky Derby favorite.

The top older horse in the field is Evening Attire, a rangy gray gelding who blossomed late for his New York trainer, Patrick Kelly. Evening Attire, 4, is not as well known as his 3-year-old counterparts, but he may be a better racehorse, especially on a wet track.

Can the California filly Azeri win her seventh straight in the Distaff and remain a candidate for Horse of the Year? Can the impeccably bred Storm Flag Flying overcome behavioral quirks and remain undefeated by winning the Juvenile Fillies?

Can Rock of Gibraltar win the Mile for his record eighth straight Group/ Grade I stakes conquest? Can War Emblem carry his speed 1 1/4 miles, as he did in the Kentucky Derby, and clinch Horse of the Year? Can that little Xtra Heat do it?

If you've got a ticket, bring a jacket. If not, settle in front of a TV for thoroughbred racing's greatest day.

Tom Keyser's selections

Distaff 1. Take Charge Lady

2. Farda Amiga

3. Azeri

Juvenile Fillies

1. Storm Flag Flying

2. Composure

3. Santa Catarina

Mile

1. Rock of Gibraltar

2. Domedriver

3. Medecis

Sprint

1. Xtra Heat

2. Kona Gold

3. Orientate

Filly/Mare Turf

1. Turtle Bow

2. Islington

3. Golden Apples

Juvenile

1. Van Nistelrooy

2. Toccet

3. Listen Indy

Turf

1. High Chaparral

2. Golan

3. With Anticipation

Classic

1. Evening Attire

2. Medaglia d'Oro

3. Hawk Wing

Breeders' Cup

What:Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships

When:Today

Where:Arlington Park, Arlington Heights, Ill.

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

Feature race:$4 million Breeders' Cup Classic (post time 5:35 p.m.)

Maryland-based horses: Xtra Heat in Sprint, 3:10 p.m.; Toccet in Juvenile, 4:20 p.m.

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