10/18/2002 12:00AM

BC Countdown - Classic: Top 3-year-olds enter homestretch


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Perhaps it was fate or serendipity that brought Came Home, Medaglia d'Oro, and War Emblem to their summit meeting in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic at Arlington Park. They have been intertwined all year, first as part of the Triple Crown chase in the spring and now in the quest for championships in the fall. But their similarities run far deeper.

All three were put up for sale by their original owners; two were bought just this year, after they had been racing; and the one who wasn't sold had his name inspired by failing to meet a reserve price at not one, not two, but three different auctions. Each is handled by a trainer acknowledged to be among the best in the business. All three colts have fairly similar front-running styles, though some have learned to ration that speed better than others. All have won a race at 1 1/4 miles, the distance of the Classic. Each is coming into the Classic off a nine-week rest. And next Saturday in the Classic, they will attempt to prove that this year's crop of 3-year-olds is superior to the nation's older horses.

"I think they are. I think my horse is going to be the favorite," said Bobby Frankel, the trainer of Medaglia d'Oro. "Came Home is probably going to be the second choice. I've got no hesitation running against older horses."

Came Home is the only one of the three who has defeated older horses in a stakes race. He did it in the Pacific Classic, in which War Emblem finished sixth. The Classic will be the final career start for both Came Home and War Emblem, both of whom will begin stud duty next spring.

"It's going to be very hard to get another horse like him," said Paco Gonzalez, the trainer of Came Home. "He does everything right."

Gonzalez craves a win in the Classic - for the horse, not himself. Gonzalez has done a spectacular job with Came Home, getting him to win 9 of 11 starts, three Grade 1 races, and stakes ranging from six furlongs to 1 1/4 miles - a distance until two months ago thought beyond Came Home's scope. The shy, reserved Gonzalez deflects credit for the colt's training, preferring to offer a spirited defense of Came Home.

"I would be very proud to win Horse of the Year. Proud for the horse," said Gonzalez, who believes that Came Home has been under-appreciated throughout his career. "People always want to put him down. Everybody thinks he's a sprinter, but he relaxes. You can put him where you want. He's not crazy. He's not a run off."

Came Home has had to clear more hurdles than Edwin Moses. His breeders, John Toffan and Trudy McCaffery, offered the moderately sized son of Gone West for sale at three different auctions as a yearling or 2-year-old. Each time, he failed to meet his reserve price, and came home, thus inspiring his name. When Came Home started racing, he was first perceived as merely a sprinter.

Then he won the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby, despite missing some training time after being cast in his stall and taking ill briefly. "After all the problems he had, to win that race, not too many horses could do that," Gonzalez said. Still, doubts were raised about his ability to handle 1 1/4 miles in the Kentucky Derby. He finished sixth in that race. So, he was 10-1, the highest price of his career, when he tried 1 1/4 miles again in the Pacific Classic.

"His last race was his best race. That and the Hopeful," Gonzalez said. "He's won short, a mile, a mile and an eighth, a mile and a quarter, and yet people still say he's not a good horse."


"Everybody," Gonzalez replied.

Came Home ran in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile off a similar, extended layoff. But that was not by design. Came Home twisted an ankle before the Norfolk Stakes, and had to bypass that prep. "We rushed to get him to the race. I knew he was short going into that race," Gonzalez said of the Juvenile.

There are no such fears this time. Gonzalez decided after the Pacific Classic to head straight into the Breeders' Cup. Came Home has responded with a series of strong workouts at Santa Anita, where he will remain until flying here on Wednesday.

"I didn't want to come earlier because the weather there can change so much," Gonzalez said. "He runs good when he's fresh. He's feeling good. He's feeling too good. He gets in his stall and just wants to roll and roll."

The tumult Came Home has endured is nothing compared with what War Emblem - whose season would be more suited to a soap opera than a documentary - has endured. His original owner, Russell Reineman, thought he was selling a horse with a short shelf life when Prince Ahmed Salman's The Thoroughbred Corporation purchased War Emblem a little more than three weeks before the Kentucky Derby.

But the bone chips that caused other suitors to pass on War Emblem did not stop the wiry, near-black son of Our Emblem from streaking to front-running victories in the Derby and Preakness Stakes for his new trainer, Bob Baffert. En route, Reineman and Prince Ahmed got into a dispute over a $1 million bonus earned by War Emblem for victories in the Illinois Derby and the Kentucky Derby.

With the Triple Crown on the line, War Emblem stumbled badly at the start of the Belmont Stakes. He wound up eighth. A little more than one month later, Prince Ahmed died, apparently of a heart attack, in Saudi Arabia. War Emblem returned to the races on Aug. 4, and ran away with the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth. But three weeks later, he finished sixth in the Pacific Classic after failing to make the early lead. And since then, he has been sold for stud duty to the Yoshida family's Shadai Farm in Japan, which will take possession of War Emblem following the Classic.

"He looks great for what he's been through," Baffert said. "He's put some weight on. I did too much with him - the Haskell, coming back to Del Mar for a race three weeks later, a fast work before the Pacific Classic. He was knocked out. He's a very light horse as it is. But he looks great now. That little freshening I gave him did him some good."

War Emblem has been training steadily at Santa Anita. He will be on the same flight that brings Came Home here on Wednesday.

There will be no holding back in the Breeders' Cup. It is War Emblem's final race, and Baffert has learned that the colt has to roll away from the gate to be most effective.

"The whole deal is the break," Baffert acknowledged. "There's no rating tactics like last time. He's got to be up there, or he doesn't run. The big field doesn't bother me, because he's only got one way to go."

Medaglia d'Oro, like War Emblem, was purchased privately earlier this year. He was a lesser-known commodity at the time, having raced just twice, at Turfway Park and Oaklawn Park. But Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel and owner Ed Gann, acting on the advice of bloodstock agent Mark Reid, thought the powerfully built son of El Prado had plenty of upside.

"You always think big things when you buy a horse, but it never comes true. This one did," Frankel said.

Medaglia d'Oro paid immediate dividends, winning the San Felipe in his first start in a stakes and around two turns. Frankel went right on with Medaglia d'Oro. He was second in the Wood Memorial, fourth in the Kentucky Derby, eighth in the Preakness, and a close second in the Belmont.

Medaglia d'Oro remained in New York following the Triple Crown, and has had a fall campaign that has been less frenetic. He came off a two-month layoff to win the Jim Dandy Stakes by nearly 14 lengths, then captured the Travers Stakes. Now, Frankel again is giving Medaglia d'Oro two months between starts.

"He did so well between after the Belmont when he ran in the Jim Dandy," Frankel said from Belmont Park, where Medaglia d'Oro will train until flying here on Monday. "He trains well. He's a good doer. He does whatever you want in the morning. He's very generous."

And he has grown up this fall.

"He never was a small horse, but he's filled out, muscled out," said Jerry Bailey, who rides Medaglia d'Oro. "His neck's a little wider."

"I had to rush to get him to the Triple Crown," Frankel said. "He never had a chance to relax and settle in. We were always getting him ready for another race. He's a big, strong colt who's just coming around. Some kids are more mature in eighth grade, and then in high school the others catch up. I think he's caught up to the others."