INGLEWOOD, CALIF., NOV. 20 -- The fourth Breeders' Cup has been the target of much criticism within the thoroughbred business, but all the flak can't obscure the fact that this will be a spectacular day of racing at Hollywood Park.
Alysheba will battle Ferdinand in the world's richest race, the Breeders' Cup Classic. It is the first time in the 1980s that two Kentucky Derby winners have raced against each other. The rest of the seven-race program, which offers a total of $10 million in purse money, has attracted potential champions from four foreign countries to face the best in the United States.
Yet the main topic here has been the time and place chosen for the Breeders' Cup. The unusually late date inconvenienced the plans of many horsemen, and also put the races into competition with the UCLA-USC football game. Nationally, NBC's telecast must go against the Notre Dame-Penn State and Oklahoma-Nebraska doubleheader and ratings are expected to be an all-time low.
Moreover, Eastern horsemen objected to the fact that the Breeders' Cup would be run in California for the third time in four years, and a small clique of influential New Yorkers has boycotted the race. The country's top 2-year-old colt, Forty Niner, and the unbeaten 3-year-old filly Personal Ensign are conspicuously absent as a result.
But almost all of the country's other equine stars are here, and this day's races should decide most of the Eclipse Award winners for 1987. In one way or another, the Breeders' Cup should also determine the horse of the year.
Alysheba, who won the Derby and Preakness in the spring, could lock up the title if he wins the Classic, too. But he may well be tired after a long, tough campaign, though trainer Jack Van Berg disputes that popular notion.
"I think he's stronger and better right now than he has been all year," Van Berg insisted. "He's as good as a horse can be." Alysheba gave credence to that opinion with a pair of excellent mile workouts (one of them in 1:35 3/5).
But the bettors at Hollywood are expected to make Ferdinand and his 56-year-old jockey, Bill Shoemaker, the solid favorite. Ferdinand is a much better colt now than he was when he won the 1986 Kentucky Derby. He has won his last three starts, and he signaled his readiness for the Breeders' Cup when he worked five-eighths of a mile in 57 4/5 seconds this week.
The Classic is by no means a two-horse race, however. Skywalker, the upset winner in 1986, is trying to become the first horse ever to win two Breeders' Cup races. Afleet, a 3-year-old from Canada, has impressed handicappers who have seen him run in the East this fall. Cryptoclearance and Gulch have each won more than $1 million this season.
If Alysheba doesn't win the Classic, the horse of the year title could very well be decided in the first race of the day, the Sprint. Groovy is aiming to complete an undefeated season and he is probably better at his specialty than any other horse on the program.
A high-powered public relations agency is hyping his horse-of-the-year candidacy, and Groovy is the only animal to have a cocktail reception held in his honor this week.
His opposition in the 14-horse field includes Pine Tree Lane, the brilliantly fast filly who outran him in last year's Breeders' Cup; and Zany Tactics, who set the the world record for six furlongs (1:06 4/5) in Arizona earlier this year.
Both of the turf races have drawn powerful foreign contingents. In the 1 1/2-mile Turf, with its $2 million purse, France's Trempolino will challenge America's ranking grass runner, Theatrical. Another strong contender is Allez Milord, who ran decently in England this year but improved sharply when he came to California this month and was treated with the medication Lasix for the first time.
In the Mile, three European fillies -- Milligram, Miesque and Sonic Lady -- appear to dominate the 14-horse field. Milligram beat the other two in England, but she bruised her foot here. "She's had this problem before," trainer Michael Stoute said. "The problem is that this time she's done it two days before the race."
Both 2-year-old races are wide-open affairs in which trainer Wayne Lukas has strength in numbers. His speedsters Success Express and Tejano are the two favorites in the Juvenile. Lukas saddles five starters in the Juvenile Fillies, of whom Dream Team and Classic Crown appear to be the best.
The only race that didn't draw much depth of talent is the Distaff. Infinidad is favored against five other fillies and mares. The absence of Personal Ensign hurt the field considerably.
One reason for her absence, and the opposition of Eastern trainers to holding the Breeders' Cup in California, was the memory of last year's races at Santa Anita.
The track was so speed-favoring that it brought about some fluky results and gave a distinct advantage to California-based horses used to competing under such conditions. The track at Hollywood is much different, however. Front-runners may have had a slight edge since this season opened Wednesday, but the racing strip is basically fair, and a proper setting for a day of championship events.