10/04/2005 11:00PM

BC Classic: Once again, Horse of the Year honors are on the line

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For the second straight year, the Breeders' Cup Classic is shaping up as the defining race for Horse of the Year.

Recent impressive victories by older horses Borrego, Rock Hard Ten, and Saint Liam - all of whom are scheduled for the $4 million Classic on Oct. 29 at Belmont Park - and the possibility that Afleet Alex will join them puts the Classic on par with last year's race in terms of year-end importance.

Last year, the Classic featured five horses - Azeri, Birdstone Ghostzapper, Pleasantly Perfect, and Roses in May - who could have nailed down Horse of the Year with a victory. Ghostzapper led his rivals on a merry chase and secured both Horse of the Year and champion older horse.

Rock Hard Ten is unbeaten in three starts this year, but his 2005 campaign really began last Dec. 26, when he won the seven-furlong Malibu Stakes in his first start for trainer Richard Mandella. Since then, Rock Hard Ten has added the Strub Stakes, Santa Anita Handicap, and last Saturday's Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap.

"You couldn't do much more in four starts," Mandella said.

Saint Liam lost his lone start against Rock Hard Ten this year, in the Santa Anita Handicap, but has been nearly perfect otherwise. He beat Roses in May in the Donn, won the Stephen Foster, then avenged a Whitney loss to Commentator with an overpowering performance in the Woodward.

"We're all set to go, babe," said Saint Liam's trainer, Richard Dutrow Jr. "If the race was tomorrow, he'd be ready. I think if Saint Liam wins the Classic, he'd probably be Horse of the Year."

Borrego is a late addition to the Horse of the Year picture. He has won just twice this year, in the Pacific Classic and Jockey Club Gold Cup, but a victory in the Classic would give him a formidable late-season r?sum?.

The wild card is Afleet Alex, who was the leader in the clubhouse for Horse of the Year after winning the Belmont Stakes. He is scheduled to work again at Belmont Park on Friday, and if he comes out of that work well, trainer Tim Ritchey said he would look for a comeback race the weekend of Oct. 14-16.

There are several options for Afleet Alex, most notably the Grade 3, $200,000 Perryville Stakes at about seven furlongs at Keeneland on Oct. 14 and the $100,000 Vincent Moscarelli Memorial Handicap at six furlongs at Delaware Park on Oct. 15.

In addition, Belmont Park's overnight sheet now includes an overnight stakes race Oct. 14 for which Afleet Alex would be eligible. It is the $100,000 Colonial Affair, for 3-year-olds and up, at one mile. Nominations for that race close Saturday.

Whichever race he runs in, it would be the first start for Afleet Alex since the Belmont and since having surgery, and with Afleet Alex having had only two works in recent weeks, it would be his prep for the Classic.

Ritchey said the Breeders' Cup Mile, on turf, is "also an option."

- additional reporting by David Grening

Classic Contenders
3-year-olds & up, 1 1/4 miles. Purse: $4 million

RANKHORSETRAINERODDS
1Rock Hard TenR. Mandella3-1
Goodwood win was a super prep; figures to only be tougher in this
2Saint LiamR. Dutrow Jr.5-2
Legit challengers emerged last Saturday; not as imposing here now
3OratorioA. O'Brien10-1
Won two big Group 1's at the distance; dangerous if he opts for this
4BorregoC. B. Greely4-1
Nice win in J.C. Gold Cup, but no one else in that race ran one step
5Roman RulerB. Baffert10-1
Remains on the fence for this despite his game second in Goodwood
6Perfect DriftM. Johnson12-1
May not have handled the slop in Hawthorne flop; back in the top 10
7Flower AlleyT. Pletcher12-1
Rank in his very disappointing J.C. Gold Cup; is he a Saratoga horse?
8Afleet AlexT. Ritchey8-1
Sharp workout last week improves his chances of making this race
9SuaveP. McGee20-1
Thoroughly beaten by Borrego at Belmont, but at least he is steady
10Sun KingN. Zito30-1
His badly beaten third in the J.C. Gold Cup did nothing to inspire
The top 10 contenders for each of the eight Breeders' Cup races are ranked by Mike Watchmaker, who set the odds and wrote the comments. Actual Breeders' Cup fields will have up to 14 starters.