ELMONT, N.Y., OCT. 5 -- On a weekend of racing that includes five major stakes events and is designed as a dress rehearsal for the Breeders' Cup, the main object of attention will be a horse little-known to fans in the United States. His name is Izvestia.
The Canadian 3-year-old has never beaten a top-class rival, but he has gained a position of preeminence at Belmont Park by default. The ranks of this country's best horses have been devastated by injuries.
Criminal Type, who had become the No. 1 older racehorse after the retirement of Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, was knocked out of Saturday's $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Breeders' Cup by ankle problems.
Prized, the winner of the Breeders' Cup Turf last year, hasn't been training well and will miss Sunday's $600,000 Turf Classic. Eastern Echo, the most promising 2-year-old in the country, suffered a broken bone in a workout this week that not only knocked him out of Saturday's $500,000 Champagne Stakes, but ended his career.
There is such a dearth of good older dirt runners in the country that even a race with the purse money and immense prestige of the Gold Cup could draw only a weak field of six. But the race should give Izvestia a chance to prove he is really as good as his record looks.
The colt has won his last eight races by a combined total of 44 lengths. Included in that streak was his sweep of Canada's Triple Crown series. But he drubbed weak competition. He did face some recognizable foes in his last start, the Molson Million, and he scored by 3 1/2 lengths over Baron De Vaux, the Maryland-based perennial bridesmaid.
That is no a great claim to fame, but it is enough to make him the 8-5 favorite Saturday and the long-range favorite for the world's richest race, the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic, which will be run at Belmont Oct. 27.
Izvestia's most intriguing rival is Steinlen, the outstanding grass runner whom trainer Wayne Lukas has been itching to try on the dirt. If Steinlen can handle the new surface, his options would expand greatly.
"We'll evaluate the race," said Jeff Lukas, Wayne's son and assistant, "and then decide about the Breeders' Cup -- turf or dirt?"
The others in The Jockey Club Gold Cup are Flying Continental, Lay Down, Thirty Six Red and De Roche. The race will be simulcast to Laurel.
The other two Grade I stakes at Belmont Saturday should confirm the identities of the best 2-year-olds in the country. Deposit Ticket, a speedster trained by Lukas, was beaten by Eastern Echo in his last start, but after Eastern Echo's injury he has regained his status as the leading juvenile male.
Deposit Ticket will be solidly favored against 12 rivals in the Champagne, which was America's most prestigious 2-year-old event until the creation of the Breeders' Cup.
Meadow Star, who is undefeated in five career starts, will be an odds-on favorite against six other 2-year-old fillies in the $250,000 Frizette Stakes.
The two Grade I stakes that will be run Sunday both drew somewhat disappointing fields. Go For Wand, the country's best 3-year-old filly, will be overwhelmingly favored to demolish her overmatched foes in the $250,000 Beldame Stakes.
The Turf Classic drew a more competitive field, and an invader from England, Cacoethes, may be the one to beat, even though he is zero for three this year. A not particularly distinguished English horse won the last major grass event in New York, confirming the impression the Europeans have an edge over the East's best this season.
The leading American contender in the Turf Classic is With Approval, who finished second to Golden Pheasant in last month's Arlington Million. With Approval won the Canadian Triple Crown last year against weak fields before he went on to prove he was capable of running with top-class competition -- just what his stablemate, Izvestia, will try to do too.