10/28/2005 12:00AM

After the top three, then who?

Borrego, here training at Belmont last week with Andy Durnin up, romped to victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup over the Belmont surface at the BC Classic distance.

ELMONT, N.Y. - It could mean everything. It could mean nothing. Well, nothing except $4.68 million. The Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday at Belmont Park has the potential to decide Horse of the Year, or at least the championship for older horse. But the three top candidates, who figure to be the top three choices in the wagering, all have questions surrounding them. Problem is, for handicappers seeking an alternative, there are few who can be backed with conviction, but plenty with blind faith.

Saint Liam won the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park in his last start, but in his lone race at the Classic's 1 1/4-mile distance, in the Santa Anita Handicap, he ran his worst race since Richard Dutrow Jr. took over as his trainer two years ago. Combine that with post 13 in a field of 14, and Saint Liam has significant hurdles.

Rock Hard Ten won the Santa Anita Handicap, and he is unbeaten in four starts since moving to the barn of trainer Richard Mandella. But he ran the worst race of his life in the Belmont Stakes, his only previous start on this track, and his training was compromised this week by a foot bruise that necessitated being outfitted in glue-on shoes on his front feet.

Borrego romped in the Jockey Club Gold Cup after winning the Pacific Classic. That was the first time he had ever won consecutive races, and now he's going for three in a row. He benefited from fast early pace situations in both his victories, and the pace of the Classic is uncertain.

What Borrego does have in his favor is a win over the track, and four weeks of subsequent training that have gone without a hitch. Throughout the week, he has given the impression of a colt who is thriving.

"He's just maturing," said Beau Greely, who trains and co-owns Borrego. "He's starting to come around. He's never been better than he is right now. He improved in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The move he made in that race was one of the best moves of any horse this year."

Greely, however, does not take the competition lightly. He is a former assistant to Richard Mandella, the trainer of Rock Hard Ten, and has seen time and again how well Mandella can point a horse to a specific target.

"Rock Hard Ten looks good, and Saint Liam ran well over this track," Greely said. "It's the Breeders' Cup Classic. It's as good a field as you'll see. But the way Borrego ran last time, I wouldn't trade spots."

The early part of the race will demand quick tactical decisions from several riders whose horses have outside posts in a race that starts on a turn. Jerry Bailey, aboard Saint Liam, and Patrick Valenzuela, aboard Starcraft, must try and save ground, but their choices could be affected by the position of horses with contending speed drawn to their inside, like Super Frolic, Suave, and Flower Alley.

Borrego should be oblivious to all this, because he prefers to make one run from behind. Rock Hard Ten has the advantage of starting from the rail.

Dutrow thinks Bailey can work out a good trip on Saint Liam. "Jerry can drop over and get a good trip from the outside, and he can keep the opposition pinned inside if that's something he chooses to do," Dutrow said.

Flower Alley won the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, but in his lone start against older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, he got caught in the midst of a torrid pace and faded to fifth. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, said he will leave blinkers on Flower Alley, but will cut back the plastic cup to increase visibility.

"I wanted to open them up a little bit so he's not quite as aggressive, but I still need to leave them on and closed enough so he's not distracted by everything going on around him," Pletcher said.

Choctaw Nation was hindered by a slow pace in the Goodwood, which was won by Rock Hard Ten. Ten furlongs might be beyond his best, but he should have a sharper pace at which to run, and he drew well, landing post 3.

The veteran warrior Perfect Drift is running in the Classic for the fourth straight year. He was fourth behind Super Frolic in the Hawthorne Gold Cup last time out, but his trainer, Murray Johnson, said the track was too loose. "It'll be a tighter track here," said Johnson, who has had a good week otherwise. He's a huge Chicago White Sox fan, and has been wearing a cap and sweatshirt of his favorite team.

Oratorio and Starcraft were top-class runners in Europe, but both will be racing on dirt for the first time. They and the European longshot Jack Sullivan all will be using the medication Lasix for the first time.

- additional reportingby David Grening