10/24/2002 12:00AM

BC Countdown - Juvenile: Key variables: Distance and the start


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Trainers may fall on both sides of the issue of whether it was a good decision to increase the distance of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile to nine furlongs. But, most trainers agree on how important the break will be in determining the outcome.

There is about a 150-yard run to the first turn, and with 14 young, immature horses in the field, many horsemen will be holding their breath in the early stages of the race.

"I think the break is going to be so important for these 2-year-olds," said trainer Bob Baffert, who will send out Kafwain, Bull Market, and Vindication in the Juvenile. "They are going a mile and an eighth for the first time, and they don't know it. You're going to need a lot of talent and class to get there."

The Juvenile will be run at nine furlongs for the first time because Arlington Park cannot accommodate the usual distance of 1 1/16 miles. The alternative would have been to shorten the race to a mile, the distance at which it was run for three of the first four years of the series.

"It would be a safer race at a flat mile if you wanted to run 14 because you got the whole backside to sort it out," said John Ward, trainer of probable Juvenile favorite Sky Mesa. "With 14 horses there has to be Derby-like congestion going into the first turn. It's a matter of a roll of the dice and luck."

Added Baffert: "It's going to be tough on all the juveniles. They're not ready to go this far."

Sky Mesa is undefeated in three starts and is coming off a four-length victory in the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland. He has been fairly dominant in his races, leaving his trainer to wonder how he will do in a street fight.

"That's the unknown, whether he can get into a battle and survive," Ward said. "He'll catch more [dirt] on Saturday than in the past. Has he got what it will take to get down there and run? Right now, it's all natural ability."

Vindication, perhaps the strongest of Baffert's three entrants, had things his own way winning his first two starts at Del Mar on the front end. He met and overcame adversity in the Grade 3 Kentucky Cup Juvenile at Turfway Park when he got off poorly and was inhibited by the horse next to him unseating his rider. Still, Vindication came with a huge move down the backside and went on to romp by 3 3/4 lengths.

"After he got left I thought this is sort of good: Let's see what he's really made of, let's see how good he really is," Baffert said. "It's exciting to know you really have a good one."

Baffert will also send out Kafwain and Bull Market, the one-two finishers in the Norfolk. Bull Market figures to be part of the pace while Baffert hopes Kafwain can take up a stalking position.

The buzz horse of Breeders' Cup week is Whywhywhy. After running most of the summer in the shadow of stablemate Zavata, Whywhywhy has emerged as the more-fancied of the two off his victory in the Belmont Futurity. He has trained extremely well over the track, and though he loses regular rider Edgar Prado to Sky Mesa, he'll get two-time Juvenile winner Pat Day.

Zavata, winner of the Tremont and Saratoga Special, figures to be part of the pace under Gary Stevens.

In addition to the distance and the break, a big unknown in the Juvenile is the strength of trainer Aidan O'Brien's trio of Hold That Tiger, Van Nistelrooy, and Tomahawk. None of the three have ever raced on dirt, but all are bred for it. Plus, O'Brien won last year's Juvenile with Johannesburg, who also had never raced on dirt. Tomahawk, a son of Seattle Slew, is running back one week after finishing second in last Saturday's Darley Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket.

"I think Tomahawk is very much a dirt horse, the question is how well he took the Dewhurst," O'Brien said. "Van Nistelrooy has a real strong pedigree and you'd have to say the same about Hold That Tiger. I think they all should handle it."

While Tomahawk figures to be up close to the pace, Van Nistelrooy and Hold That Tiger - who passed 13 horses in winning the Grand Criterium - should be running late.

There may not be a more confident trainer than John Scanlan, who will saddle Champagne winner Toccet. Scanlan believes the horse will excel at the nine furlongs. His only concern is Toccet having to break from post 14.

"The only thing I got to beat is the post," Scanlan said. "I'm not worried about anybody else. I have no excuses. I know this horse will get the distance, no trouble. I really expect this horse to put in one hell of a performance. I wouldn't settle for anything else."

Listen Indy, Lone Star Sky, and Wando complete the field.