10/24/2005 11:00PM

BC Classic: Favorites fight foot problems

Bago, a Turf contender, hits the Belmont training track Tuesday, one of few horses to brave the rain.

ELMONT, N.Y. - If there's one thing trainers of horse with foot problems dread, it's a track packed down to mitigate against rain. The surface can be jarring and exacerbate tender feet, and the water and sand can work their way into any fissure in the hoof wall, where they can cause mayhem.

Rock Hard Ten and Saint Liam - two of the top contenders for this year's $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday at Belmont Park, and two of the leading candidates for Horse of the Year - both have been battling foot problems. Rock Hard Ten's issues are more recent, with a foot bruise delaying his travel from California. Saint Liam has more chronic problems that have demanded constant attention.

Neither, though, is at Belmont Park, and on Tuesday morning, that was a good thing. A cold rain and fierce wind lashed the track, turning the track sloppy and causing some drains in the stable area to back up. The main track was sealed and sloppy. Only the truly hearty braved the elements. The rest stayed in, most notably the Classic horses who had worked on Monday, like Borrego, Flower Alley, and Sun King.

Saint Liam is a few miles away at Aqueduct, where he also stayed indoors on Tuesday after working on Monday. Rock Hard Ten trained in pleasant weather at Santa Anita. He was scheduled to depart for New York on Wednesday, and will likely avoid the inclement weather that has hindered training here. He originally was scheduled to fly here last Sunday.

Rock Hard Ten on Tuesday morning jogged a mile, then galloped 1 1/2 miles, and appeared to be a picture of health moving comfortably through the Santa Anita stretch.

"I'll take that . . . looks good," trainer Richard Mandella said while watching Rock Hard Ten gallop. Minutes later, as Rock Hard Ten walked off, the importance of the Tuesday gallop became even more obvious.

"Whew, I needed that," Mandella said. He broke into an impromptu foot-shuffle dance that was as enthusiastic - though perhaps less nimble - as Rock Hard Ten's morning exercise. The spontaneous show of emotion hinted that the previous four days have been difficult.

"There is no easy day," Mandella admitted, "but so far it's gone great."

Last Thursday, Rock Hard Ten came out of a seven-furlong work with a bruised left front foot that has required continuous soaking and applications of poultice. Rock Hard Ten had all four shoes removed and trained barefoot Saturday and Sunday. Mandella said Rock Hard Ten was fitted with glue-on shoes in front and regular shoes behind on Monday, then galloped late Monday morning with the new shoes. Mandella said the foot bruise does not factor into the colt's fitness, and he does not expect it to be an issue Saturday in the Classic.

"I'd rather it didn't happen, but he hasn't missed a day at the track, and I don't see why it wouldn't work out just fine," Mandella said.

With four days to go, Mandella was confident that Rock Hard Ten is ready. But he realizes he is not out of the woods and said that if the horse arrives in New York "and goes the wrong way, he won't run."

Saint Liam's feet, especially in front, look like a lab experiment gone awry. He has brittle, shelly front feet that usually have glue-on shoes, and there's very little hoof wall. It is rare to see a top-class horse with such imperfect feet. But having his races well spaced by trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. - he's only had five starts this year - and having blacksmith Alex Leaf improvise each time Saint Liam is shod, has kept him going.

"He's the best guy I've ever seen around a foot," Dutrow said of Leaf. "If it weren't for him, I can't see Saint Liam being as good as he is. I don't tell him what to do. I leave it all up to him."

When Saint Liam has developed a quarter crack, Dutrow has reached out to New Jersey-based blacksmith Ian McKinlay, who is considered the country's best at applying patches.

"I've got the best people around his feet," Dutrow said. "That's the key thing about him. And the horse has cooperated with us."

Saint Liam's shoes were removed after Monday's work. Dutrow said Saint Liam would be barefoot Tuesday and Wednesday, then would be reshod on Thursday.

The National Weather Service forecast for the rest of the week has changed slightly, and for the worse. After a predicted blustery day on Wednesday, it was supposed to be dry and cool on Thursday and Friday, with high temperatures in the mid-50's. On Saturday, there is now the possibility of showers.

- additional reporting by Brad Free