For anyone who loves the art of handicapping, the Breeders' Cup offers an irresistible challenge. The seven championship races at Hollywood Park Saturday force a bettor to evaluate horses from the West, the East and Europe, and in most cases there are no neat lines of comparison.
How do you choose between a 2-year-old filly who beat a weak field at the Meadowlands by nine lengths with one who finished second to a star at Santa Anita? How do you compare one of the best milers in England with a rival who ran a mile in a record 1:33 at Belmont Park?"
I confidently expect to pick the winners in most of the races at Hollywood Park (including one major upset), and since Pick Six wagering is offered here on the Breeders' Cup, I may be taking home a chunk of the Hollywood Park grandstand Saturday night.
FIRST RACE. BREEDERS' CUP JUVENILE (1 mile, 2-year-old colts and geldings): Chief's Crown may not be a top 2-year-old by the standards of other years, but he is clearly the best horse of his generation. He dominated his contemporaries in New York, and he has already made the difficult East-to-West transition, capturing the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita.
Chief's Crown had been expected to get a test from Image of Greatness, who broke his maiden by running six furlongs in a sensational 1:08 2/5 at Santa Anita. But when that colt was withdrawn from the race today because of a virus, Chief's Crown was left without any real competition. Spectacular Love and Secretary General did score victories over him earlier in the season, but neither seems sharp enough now to do it again. Chief's Crown is a standout.
SECOND RACE. BREEDERS' CUP JUVENILE FILLIES (1 mile, 2-year-old fillies): The California filly Folk Art had figured to run away from this field, but when she was withdrawn this morning because of a hock injury this became the most wide open (and the weakest) of all the Breeders' Cup events.
Bessarabian will be the favorite on the strength of her five-race winning streak, but four of those victories came again nonentities in Canada and the other against a weak bunch at the Meadowlands. Fine Spirit showed a touch of brilliance breaking her maiden by 13 lengths in fast time at Santa Anita, but she has little seasoning. Outstandingly ran very well at Saratoga, but her most recent race in New York was dismal.
Any of these three could win, but I will cast a tepid vote for Pirate's Glow, who finished second by 4 1/2 lengths to Folk Art in her last start. She's no champion, but she is seasoned, she is fit, she is a locally based horse and she is 12 to 1 in the morning line.
THIRD RACE. BREEDERS' CUP SPRINT (6 furlongs, 3-year-olds and up): Sprinters from the East are usually overwhelmed when they come West; they aren't prepared to cope with the sizzling pace that is customary in the races here. Any horse who can't cope with a sub 22-second first quarter is going to be engulfed.
But Eillo is going to feel right at home here. The wire-to-wire winner of sprints in Florida, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, he probably has the quickness to get loose from a field that contains surprisingly few real speedballs.
Eillo's soundness is a question, but if he runs anything close to his top race, his chief rivals -- Fighting Fit, Explosive Wagon and Pleasure Cay -- aren't in his league.
FOURTH RACE. BREEDERS' CUP MILE (Turf, 1 mile, 3-year-olds and up.): It is never certain whether European horses will be able to reproduce their best form on this side of the Atlantic, but if the English colt Lear Fan does, he should win this race. His only defeat on firm ground came when he finished third in the Two Thousand Guineas, and that event was viewed as one of the strongest fields of milers that has been assembled in England in years.
He will get a tough challenge from the filly Royal Heroine, who ran second to John Henry in the Arlington Million, but this race may be too short for her. Another formidable entry is Cozzene, who equalled Belmont's track record for a mile last month. But if Lear Fan fires his best shot, they won't beat him.
FIFTH RACE. BREEDERS' CUP DISTAFF (1 1/4 miles, fillies and mares, 3-year-olds and up): Princess Rooney was a champion 2-year-old and a disappointment at the age of 3; now she has come back at 4 to be the dominant member of her sex. She will be the shortest-priced favorite in all the Breeders' Cup races and figures to be the easiest winner.
Princess Rooney is at her peak now; two weeks ago, she won the Spinster Stakes by six lengths over Lucky Lucky Lucky, who is one of her rivals Saturday. The only member of the seven-horse field who, on her best form, could beat Princess Rooney is Adored, but that daughter of Seattle Slew hasn't been training well and she probably doesn't want to go 1 1/4 miles, anyway.
SIXTH RACE. BREEDERS' CUP TURF (Turf, 1 1/2 miles, 3-year-olds and up.): When an ankle injury knocked John Henry out of the field, this became a highly competitive race.
There is going to be much sentiment for All Along, 1983's horse of the year, and Majesty's Prince, who beat her in the Rothmans International at Woodbine. But that was a weak field otherwise and, besides, both these horses are soft-turf specialists who won't get their favorite type of footing here.
The winner of this $2 million event may be a horse coming out of the Washington, D.C. International. Seattle Song won by three lengths at Laurel, and the French colt could have been expected to duplicate that performance here, but he fractured his left front cannon bone during a workout today and will be operated on Thursday.
Strawberry Road II got into so much trouble in the International that he was probably the best horse that day. If 53-year-old Bill Shoemaker can deliver a good ride, he could win.
But the potential long shot coming out of the International is Alphabatim. The 3-year-old had been a disappointment for much of this season in England, but he showed new life at Laurel -- too much life, in fact. Jockey Don Miller couldn't control him as he opened a three-length lead and set an unnecessarily fast pace before fading to finish ninth. It was the pace, not the distance, that beat him: in England he had been able to go nearly two miles.
When John Henry defected from the lineup, Alphabatim was left as the one and only speed horse in the field. If English jockey Greville Starkey can control his speed, he could pull the biggest upset of the day.
SEVENTH RACE. BREEDERS' CUP CLASSIC (1 1/4 miles, 3-year-olds and up.): Details tomorrow.