Classic field lives up to name

Trainers worry weather may put crimp in clash of all-star horses

October 27, 2007|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN REPORTER

OCEANPORT, N.J. -- As the trainers of the nine entries in the Breeders' Cup Classic hunkered down in their barns yesterday and looked out through fog and mist at a sloppy track, it seemed a cruel trick.

For months, the weather has been warm and dry at Monmouth Park as the best horses in the country and the world built their cases for entry into today's Breeders' Cup races. And when the field for the $5 million Classic was set, it was described by many longtime observers as the best in the event's 23-year history.

It is a field of all-stars, featuring the best older horse in 4-year-old Lawyer Ron and the best 3-year-olds in Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, Preakness winner Curlin, Kings Bishop winner Hard Spun, Haskell winner Any Given Saturday and Santa Anita Derby winner Tiago.

There also are solid 4-year-olds in George Washington, a two-time European champion, and Grade II winners Awesome Gem and Diamond Stripes.

"I've never been in a race where there's so much on the line," said Curlin's trainer, Steve Asmussen, who arrived at Monmouth Park yesterday and was referring to the possibility of the 3-year-old champion, older horse champion and Horse of the Year all being decided in the Classic.

"This race is as close to putting it [Horse of the Year honors] in your hands as you possibly can," he said. "The Breeders' Cup was set up for this, and the best horses have sure shown up."

Each one is eyeing the big prize, and most can make a strong argument for the vote. Hard Spun's trainer, Larry Jones, said because his horse will be retired to stud after this race, he doesn't have to hold anything back.

"He should be more ready than ever, and we can tighten the screws," Jones said. "He needs to win, and he needs the other horses not to have an excuse. You don't want them crying the track was biased, the speed held, the mud made a difference, the front-runner won. And I'd make excuses, too. But I want everyone coming out of here saying the track was fair and the best horse won."

Jones' jockey, Mario Pino, who needs four wins for 6,000 in his career, said just how hard it will be.

"It's going to be a race the whole race," said Pino, who is based at Laurel Park. "You're not going to take the lead and think it's won. You've got to contend from beginning to end, because every horse is going to take his best shot at a different time. Some have speed and will go for the lead early. Some will make their move in the middle of the race. And some close real strong. ... Trying to predict the outcome is foolish."

Many think Street Sense is the best horse. He will be trying to become the fifth Kentucky Derby champion to win the Classic and the third to do it as a 3-year-old. The most recent was Unbridled in 1990. He, like Street Sense, was trained by Carl Nafzger.

But Nafzger said he doesn't think about Horse of the Year, pointing out that he doesn't get a vote. The award is decided by the vote of the National Turf Writers Association membership, The Daily Racing Form and a group of racing secretaries, including the Maryland Jockey Club's Georganne Hale.

Each voter has an individual perspective. Some look at head-to-head meetings, some at how a horse closes out a year. Some weigh the performances in major races. Others view the performance of an entire year.

"I look at the whole campaign," said Dan Liebman, editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse magazine. "And I don't include foreign horses or foreign results."

Liebman said the current crop of 3-year-olds - a group Hall of Fame trainer Wayne Lukas describes as "unusual in its durability and competitiveness" - has proved to be tough and consistent.

"No one of them is winning by 10 lengths," Liebman said.

Liebman said that if one of the 3-year-olds wins today, it could be the deciding factor.

"But if it's Hard Spun or Tiago, it will make things interesting," he said, "and if it's one of the outsiders, like George Washington, it will become more and more interesting as horses like Rags to Riches, Invasor, and even the undefeated filly Nashoba's Key, could draw attention."

Nafzger said it's a little bit like the Kentucky Derby.

"You're not thinking about the next race," he said. "You're in it. It's do it. Go!"

Horse Of the Year contenders

Horse 2007 record* Sandra McKee's comment

Lawyer Ron 7 races (4-2-1) The most durable horse in the field and best older horse. He's 2-for-2 on a wet surface, 0-for-3 at the distance. Win makes a strong case.

Street Sense 7 races (4-3-0) Has trained brilliantly this week. If he wins, Kentucky Derby winner will be Horse of the Year. He's 0-for-1 on a wet surface.

Curlin 8 races (5-1-2) Has only won on fast dirt. No question about ability to go the distance. A win and he will probably be top all-around horse.

Hard Spun 9 races (4-2-1) He has grown up physically and mentally. Has won in wet conditions. Needs to be his best when all eyes are watching.

Any Given Saturday 7 races (4-1-1) Matured over past three months. Has never run on a wet track or won at 1 1/4 miles. Win might not be enough for Horse of Year honors.

* - First place-second place-third place

Breeders' Cup

Where: Monmouth Park, Oceanport, N.J.

When: Noon today


Races (8): Classic; Turf; Distaff; Mile; Sprint; Filly & Mare Turf; Juvenile; Juvenile Fillies

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