10/01/2006 11:00PM

Aragorn may be 'Lord of the Mile'

Email

ARCADIA, Calif. - On an overcast morning at Del Mar in late August 2005, a liver chestnut-colored colt galloped through the homestretch with trainer Neil Drysdale, watching from the box seats, peering intently through his binoculars. Asked who was the focus of his rapt attention, Drysdale replied, "His name is Aragorn, and he's going to be a good horse."

At the time, Aragorn had won just once in five starts in Great Britain, in a maiden race at Doncaster. He had never so much as placed in a group stakes race. He had yet to race in this country.

A year later, everybody in racing knows Aragorn. With three straight stakes wins - two in Grade 1 races, including a course-record performance in Del Mar's Eddie Read Handicap - Aragorn is the nation's top-ranked miler, the early favorite for the Breeders' Cup Mile, and the pro-tem leader of the turf division. On Saturday, he will go for his fourth straight win in the Grade 2, $250,000 Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile at Santa Anita.

Now, Drysdale's declaration from 14 months ago might not rank up there with Babe Ruth calling his famous home run shot, or Mark Messier's guarantee of a Stanley Cup Game 6 win for the Rangers in 1994, but they have proven equally prophetic. In 7 starts in this country, Aragorn has 4 wins, and 3 seconds. He has won the Shoemaker Breeders' Cup Mile, Eddie Read, and Del Mar Breeders' Cup Mile in his last three starts. And if Aragorn can win both the Oak Tree Mile and the Breeders' Cup Mile, on Nov. 4, he will equal the late-season double Drysdale engineered with War Chant in 2000 when the Breeders' Cup, like this year, was held at Churchill Downs.

What makes a good turf miler? Drysdale, a Hall of Famer, should know. In addition to the victories by Aragorn and War Chant, he has won the Woodbine Mile with Becrux, Labeeb, and Touchoftheblues; the Shoemaker Mile with Irish Prize and Labeeb; and the Oak Tree Mile with Hawksley Hill and the filly Musical Chimes.

"You need to have natural speed, and you have to be able to harness it," Drysdale said. "Controlled, natural speed. This horse has good acceleration."

Aragorn turned on the jets in both of his Del Mar wins, running his final quarter-mile in those races in less than 23 seconds.

"In each race, he's shown a different dimension," Drysdale said. "In his last race, he was boxed in, then came through along the rails. He's very tractable."

Aragorn, a son of Giant's Causeway, was bred in Ireland by Roy and Belinda Strudwick's Ballygallon Stud, a 200-acre farm in County Kilkenny. Roy Strudwick, a native of England, owns Ryde Developments, which is a commercial real-estate developer.

The colt is named for a pivotal character in J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." In the movie trilogy, Aragorn was played by the actor Viggo Mortensen.

Aragorn finished second in his debut at 2 in June 2004 for trainer John Oxx, then won once in four starts last year from May through July for trainer David Loder.

"Loder felt he was talented, but that he wasn't getting the ground he was looking for," Drysdale said. "He felt he needed firm ground. Inasmuch as he was looking for firm ground, the Strudwicks felt the obvious place to go was California."

Drysdale liked what he saw from the start.

"He's a very straightforward horse," Drysdale said.

Aragorn made his first start in this country in September 2005 at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting and finished second in a second-level allowance race. That prep set him up well for a victory in the Oak Tree Derby 16 days later.

Drysdale's initial plan was to have the Hollywood Derby as Aragorn's third start in this country, but when turf racing was scrapped last fall at Hollywood Park, Aragorn began his winter vacation a few weeks early. Upon returning this year, he was second in the Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita, and second in the San Francisco Breeders' Cup Mile, before going on his three-race win streak.

When War Chant embarked on his Breeders' Cup Mile quest six years ago, he was a 3-year-old returning from the spring grind of the Kentucky Derby and its preps. Aragorn is a more proven commodity on turf, and has the benefit of being older and stronger.

"Last year, this horse was not nearly as strong," said Drysdale's assistant, John O'Donoghue. "He's a more mature horse."

War Chant overcame post 11 in a field of 14 to win the Breeders' Cup Mile.

"We didn't want him hung out wide," Drysdale said. "We had experience with Labeeb" - who started from post 13 in 1998 at Churchill Downs - "who was hung out wide on both turns. He gave up more ground than he lost by. The tactics with War Chant were to drop over, settle, and make one run. In the Breeders' Cup Mile, you have to be lucky. But he turned the gas on."