Despite absences, Breeders' still rates

Many standouts missing, but star-studded fields will bring plenty of heat

October 25, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ARCADIA, Calif. - When racing's elite fashioned the Breeders' Cup two decades ago, it envisioned a series so compelling that the best horses would come, and the winners would be crowned champions.

As the 20th Breeders' Cup takes place today in excruciating heat at Santa Anita Park in Southern California, the fields for the eight races worth $14 million exhibit the wisdom and the fallacy of that concept.

Many of the top horses in this country and Europe have come, and coveted championships in the form of Eclipse Award statuettes hang in the balance. At the same time, marquee horses are conspicuous by their absence, having been retired - prematurely, in some people's view - to lucrative stud careers or put to bed for the winter in hopes of glory in the Kentucky Derby next spring.

Mineshaft, perhaps the best horse in North America, was retired with a minor injury that had been kept secret - after his connections had already downplayed the Breeders' Cup. If Mineshaft had run poorly in the Classic, then his $100,000 stud fee and position as leading contender for Horse of the Year could have been jeopardized.

The brilliantly bred Empire Maker, winner of the Belmont Stakes, was retired despite being only 3 and, according to his connections, perfectly sound. And Candy Ride, who might have given Mineshaft a run for his money, was withheld from the Classic after waffling from his connections.

In addition, several top 2-year-olds boycotted today's Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships because their owners and trainers said a demanding run in the Juvenile could compromise what they saw as the greater prize, victory in the Kentucky Derby.

Although diminished by the defections, the Breeders' Cup remains the Super Bowl of racing. Its prestige and prize money were sufficient to lure 91 entrants into eight races ranging from a sprint of six furlongs (three quarters of a mile) on dirt to a marathon of 1 1/2 miles on grass.

The outcomes will weigh heavily on year-end voting for Eclipse awards, racing's version of the Academy awards. That wasn't necessarily the case in the early years of the Breeders' Cup.

"Now, in its 20th year, Breeders' Cup has a certain amount of credibility and has become a championship series," said D. Wayne Lukas, the only trainer to saddle a horse in every Breeders' Cup. "The first four or five years nobody automatically anointed the winners champions, but now if you win a Breeders' Cup race you're pretty hard to unseat the rest of the season."

After record-breaking heat all week, the forecast calls for more of the same today - a high of 102 degrees. Opinions differ on whether that will hinder East Coast and European horses and favor California's - or hinder them all equally. Horses generally disdain heat.

Azeri, reigning Horse of the Year, won't defend her winner's title in the Distaff because of a tendon injury. But the battle to succeed her as the sport's best will be spirited in the Classic. Funny Cide, Perfect Drift, Ten Most Wanted, Medaglia d'Oro or even Congaree would state their case with a victory, especially an emphatic one. But it still might not be enough to overtake Mineshaft.

Bobby Frankel, trainer of Medaglia d'Oro and seven other Breeders' Cup entrants, isn't shy about touting his horses. Of Mineshaft, he said: "He's a good horse, but this is - what do they call it? - the world championships."

Of Frankel's eight, three are morning-line favorites (Sightseek in the Distaff, Aldebaran in the Sprint and Medaglia d'Oro in the Classic).

"All I can say is that they are all coming into their races exactly, exactly the way I want," Frankel said. "It's unusual to run this many horses and have everything go right."

The Breeders' Cup features racing's only movie star, the jockey Gary Stevens, who impressed critics with his depiction of the jockey George Woolf in Seabiscuit. And it features perhaps the most recognizable face in racing, the Hall of Fame jockey Julie Krone. She will ride, among others, Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide in the Classic.

It showcases Falbrav in the Turf. The England-based horse is considered the best grass runner in the world. And it presents to Americans perhaps the strongest team of European horses ever in the Breeders' Cup.

That's saying something, because in 1993, the last time the series was held at Santa Anita, a French horse was responsible for the largest upset in Breeders' Cup history. Arcangues swept to victory in the Classic at odds of 133-1. A $2 win ticket returned $269.20.

That's the beauty of the Breeders' Cup. Mineshaft and Empire Maker may be retired, Azeri and Candy Ride may be injured, and several reluctant juveniles may be awaiting the spring classics.

But the Breeders' Cup, year-in and year-out, produces the spectacular and the unexpected.

Breeders' Cup

What: Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships

Where: Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, Calif.

When: Today

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

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

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