10/24/2002 12:00AM

BC Countdown - Mile: Rock of Gibraltar an exception to betting rule


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Veteran Breeders' Cup handicappers have become accustomed to having the Mile as their own little playground. The race typically attracts a wide array of good horses and very good horses, and the odds board offers a smorgasbord of wagering value from top to bottom.

This year, however, the Mile sports a far different look, for one simple reason: Rock of Gibraltar. A 3-year-old who has won an amazing seven straight Group 1 races and already has attained legend status in the United Kingdom, Rock of Gibraltar brings an aura of near-invincibility into the Mile, a race that trainer Aidan O'Brien has chosen as the colt's career finale.

Accordingly, Rock of Gibraltar will be heavily favored, even though the balance of the 14-horse field is full of able challengers. The opposition includes Beat Hollow, who won the Arlington Million here 10 weeks ago; Good Journey, a lightly raced 6-year-old who has won his last four starts, including all three of his races this year; and Landseer, another O'Brien-trained 3-year-old whose U.S. debut resulted in a victory in the Grade 1 Shadwell Mile at Keeneland three weeks ago.

Trainer Bobby Frankel said he and jockey Jerry Bailey "may have learned something" in the recent third-place finish in the Shadwell Mile by Beat Hollow, a 5-year-old who has earned over $1.8 million for Juddmonte Farms. "He's got to stay back a little longer," he said. "He went to the lead too soon at Keeneland, and here in the Million, too."

Good Journey, by the great sire Nureyev, has not raced since winning the Sept. 8 Atto Mile. "He runs great fresh," said trainer Wally Dollase. "He's coming into this race really, really good."

Landseer, said O'Brien, "wouldn't be a major surprise" if he upset his stablemate. "He's never, ever disappointed. He's a very good colt also."

Other potential contenders include Forbidden Apple, who will run in the Mile for the third straight year; Domedriver and Medecis, two of the top milers from France; and Touch of the Blues, a late-closing second to Landseer in the Shadwell Mile.

Yet for all this accumulation of talent, all eyes will be on Rock of Gibraltar. An Irish-bred Danehill colt owned by Susan Magnier and Sir Alex Ferguson, he has not been defeated since September of his 2-year-old season, when he finished second in the Champagne Stakes at Doncaster.

O'Brien, who was surrounded by reporters Thursday morning when he made his first appearance on the Arlington backstretch following a day of travel from Ireland, is exuding a quiet confidence in his superstar. The 32-year-old trainer, speaking softly and deliberately from beneath a ballcap and behind eyeglasses, said that although Rock of Gibraltar has had a lengthy campaign, "we just hope he's ready. It's hard to know how good some of the older milers are, isn't it? We'll hope he runs his race and that will be enough. He's in good form."

Like most European horses, Rock of Gibraltar will not mind a turf course with some give to it. As a steady light drizzle fell here Wednesday and Thursday, the course was expected to be rated anywhere from good to soft Saturday. But more than course condition, the most critical factors facing Rock of Gibraltar are ones that the rest of the field also faces: trips, traffic, and racing luck.

Perhaps more so than any other Breeders' Cup race, the results of the Mile often depend on the way the race unfolds. In the previous 18 runnings, there have been innumerable horses who lost all chance because they were knocked off stride, carried wide, beaten to a hole, or were victimized by some other unfortunate mishap.

O'Brien is quick to mention that racing luck could very well play a sizable role in whether Rock of Gibraltar is successful Saturday. Rock of Gibraltar, who will break from post 10 under regular rider Mick Kinane, is the type of horse Europeans call "handy," meaning he tends to race several lengths off the pace before bidding into contention.

"If he can make his run, I think we will be fine," said O'Brien.

The only time a horse was odds-on in the Mile was at Churchill Downs in 1994, when Lure, who had won the previous two runnings, finished ninth at 9-10. Far more often than not, the Mile has been a scramble, a race in which the favorite has been lukewarm at best.

In light of the overall strength of the 2002 field, the fact Rock of Gibraltar could be just the second odds-on favorite in race history is a tribute to his accomplishments and stature. Whether the colt can justify that incredible show of confidence is something that awaits racing fans worldwide Saturday.