10/27/2004 11:00PM

An afternoon for champions

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GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - Nick Zito knows what's on the line. Everything.

Horse of the Year. Champion 3-year-old colt. Life as we know it. Well, at least two of those three.

Much hangs in the balance in the $4 million Classic, the richest and final Breeders' Cup race to be run Saturday at Lone Star Park. As many as six horses - Birdstone, Funny Cide, Ghostzapper, Pleasantly Perfect, Roses in May and the mare Azeri - can nail down Horse of the Year with a victory in the 1 1/4-mile Classic. It is a particularly crucial race for Birdstone, who is trying to wrest the 3-year-old colt championship from the now-retired Smarty Jones, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner.

Birdstone upset Smarty Jones in the Belmont Stakes, then captured the Travers Stakes. If he can add a victory against older horses in the Classic, the spoils of victory will be his.

"If he can pull it off, he's Horse of the Year, no question," said Zito, Birdstone's trainer. "That's enough, isn't it?"

Indeed. And that was the purpose behind the Breeders' Cup's founding more than 20 years ago. One day to settle championships in various divisions.

Saturday's races, worth a total of $14,650,000 in prize money, are filled with Eclipse Award implications, from the first of the eight races to the last.

The Distaff, the first Breeders' Cup race, could decide championships for both older female and 3-year-old filly. With Azeri opting for the Classic, older females Island Fashion and Storm Flag Flying could enhance their title hopes with a victory in the Distaff. And if Ashado, Society Selection, or Stellar Jayne prevails, she could secure the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly. Storm Flag Flying, who won the Juvenile Fillies in 2002, is trying to become the first horse to win two different Breeders' Cup races.

The Juvenile Fillies will decide the Eclipse Award for best 2-year-old filly. The leading contenders are Sweet Catomine, the best in the West, and Sense of Style, who was the best in the East before her trouble-filled loss in the Alcibiades Stakes.

In the Gold was scratched on Thursday morning from the Juvenile Fillies, leaving 91 horses in the eight races.

The Mile, with a full field of 14, is one of the most wide-open races of the day. The filly Six Perfections is back from France to defend her title in that race.

The Sprint is another race that could fall any number of ways. Speightstown could resurrect his championship hopes with a victory following his loss to pro tem division leader Pico Central earlier this month in the Vosburgh Stakes. Cajun Beat is trying to become the first horse to win the Sprint twice.

The outstanding European filly Ouija Board is the favorite in the Filly and Mare Turf, and a victory by her could bring her the divisional championship off just this lone appearance in the United States. Light Jig, Riskaverse, and Wonder Again all can claim the Eclipse Award with a victory.

The Juvenile should decide the 2-year-old colt championship. With the exception of Del Mar Futurity winner Declan's Moon, the leading 2-year-old males in the country are in this race, including Afleet Alex, Consolidator, Proud Accolade, and Roman Ruler.

Kitten's Joy, the leading grass runner in the country, can secure an Eclipse Award with a victory in the Turf. And he also could put himself in the mix for Horse of the Year, should an improbable longshot win the Classic.

The Classic has an outstanding field. Pleasantly Perfect is seeking to join Tiznow as a repeat winner in the Classic. And if he prevails, he will be both Horse of the Year and the champion older horse.

Lone Star, located midway between Dallas and Ft. Worth, has sold out all 51,034 tickets for this 21st Breeders Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, which is the first held in the state of Texas. Celebrities expected for the Breeders' Cup include country music star George Strait, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

The races are expected to be run in warm weather. The National Weather Service forecast is for a high of 79 degrees, and, as of Thursday, no rain during the day. There have been occasional showers throughout the week, however, so the turf course should have some give to it. The main track should be fast, barring an unexpected downpour.

The Breeders' Cup races will be televised live by NBC in a five-hour telecast beginning at 1 p.m. Eastern.