10/31/2006 12:00AM

All the rest come up short


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - If it hadn't been for the purple Breeders' Cup saddle towel draped over a line in front of his stall, T. H. Approval could have been mistaken for some lonesome shipper from Turfway Park, stuck at the end of a nearly deserted barn, just waiting to get the race over with and head back home.

Looks, in this case, are deceiving. Far from a superstar, though honest as the day is long, T. H. Approval represents nothing less than the sum total of quality runners to emerge from the distance division of the 2006 California turf program and show up at Churchill Downs for the $3 million Breeders' Cup Turf, at 1 1/2 miles.

This should be an embarrassment to somebody. For some reason, contemporary West Coast racing seems clogged with milers - a bunch of Aragorn wannabes - who choke at the thought of any furlong beyond the ninth. Long gone are the days of such deep-lunged marauders as John Henry, Galaxy Libra, Kotashaan, and Bien Bien.

Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and Del Mar offer no less than 10 legitimate distance stakes in the 10 months before the Breeders' Cup comes around. T. H. Approval, to his everlasting credit, ran in seven of them this year, won three, and came home a solid second in three others.

The question on Saturday will be whether the horse behind T. H. Approval's record is good enough to deal with such Europeans as Hurricane Run and Scorpion, or even an American East Coast crew made up of English Channel, Cacique, Better Talk Now, and Go Deputy.

Californians have won only three of 16 runnings of the Breeders' Cup Turf while on the road. Northern Spur out-staggered Freedom Cry to take the 1995 running in a bog at Belmont. Prized made a spectacular grass debut in winning the 1989 Turf at Gulfstream Park. And then there was Great Communicator, the former claimer who shocked a 1988 Turf field at Churchill Downs that included Indian Skimmer and Triptych, the best mares of England and France.

In fairness, the 2006 running does not boast the toughest field assembled in the 23-year history of the Turf. Candidates for that honor include the 1996 running - when Pilsudski beat Singspiel, Swain, Awad, Chief Bearheart, Marlin, and Windsharp - or the 1986 version, featuring Manila over Theatrical, Estrapade, Dancing Brave, and Dahar.

Still, it will be a hard-run mile and a half, on ground that could be something less than firm. And if the four previous BC Turfs run at Churchill Downs supply any indications, the winner will need to be either a bold European closer (like Tikkanen and Kalanisi) or a tenacious American front-runner, following in the footsteps of Buck's Boy and Great Communicator.

T. H. Approval is neither. But he is, in the eyes of trainer Eduardo Inda, a legitimate marathon man, underlined by his victories in the last two runnings of the 14-furlong San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita.

In terms of Breeders' Cup experience, Inda has run only two horses, most notably Riboletta, who was heavily favored in the 2000 edition of the BC Distaff. She could do no better than seventh behind longshot Spain.

"Before that, she had won the Beldame so easy," said Inda, a former assistant to Hall of Famer Ron McAnally. "But the track at Churchill was just too hard for her that day." Riboletta won the Eclipse Award anyway as best older mare.

Inda is a 63-year-old native of Chile who came to the U.S. in 1961 to work for trainer Warren Stute and owner Clement Hirsch. Eight years later, Inda found himself back in South America, babysitting a shipment of Hirsch purchases that included a future Hollywood Gold Cup winner named Figonero. The flight was supposed to take no more than a day.

Instead, Inda and the animals underwent a four-day ordeal, on an airplane that should have never taken off. After leaving Buenos Aires, they were grounded by weather in the Argentinean town of San Juan.

"It was so bad - up and down, up and down," Inda recalled. "Everybody was throwing up. The horses were going to their knees. I thought we were finished."

Two days later the weather broke and they finally made it over the Andes, only to be grounded again in northern Chile, in a town called Antofagasta, this time by engine trouble.

"I'd never been there before," Inda said. "But at least it felt like home."

The engine was repaired and the odyssey continued on to Lima, Peru, where both fuel and a shipment of paseo horses were taken on. The next stop was Panama, and then finally Miami, where Inda practically kissed the ground and got his horses to a local training center as fast as he could.

By contrast, T. H. Approval had a much smoother journey from California to Kentucky, featuring a couple of short van rides and a smooth, nonstop flight. It was his first time on a plane.

"It's like he never left," Inda said as T. H. Approval eavesdropped from behind his net full of hay. "He's doing so well, I don't care if it rains, snows, whatever. The way he has been working lately, he is turning into a real good horse."

Inda was asked if he had spent any time checking out the opposition. The trainer grinned.

"No, I only look at my horse," Inda replied. "And I know I have a true distance horse. I'm starting to feel cocky."