10/19/2005 11:00PM

The BC race that few will see


ARCADIA, Calif. - To be perfectly accurate, the serious Breeders' Cup action begins on Saturday with the $200,000 Breeders' Cup Steeplechase, a full week before the eight more famous Breeders' Cup races are to be offered at Belmont Park. But first let's get a few things straight.

The Breeders' Cup Steeplechase takes place at Far Hills, in New Jersey, not Fair Hill, which is in Maryland. Those who are confused have a right. Four of the first six runnings of the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase were contested at Fair Hill, not Far Hills. Far Hills has been the more or less permanent home of the 'Chase since 2000.

(For the record, there is also a Fair Hills. It is either a polo club in Southern California or a resort in Minnesota, but not, thank heavens, a steeplechase course.)

Reigning North American steeplechase champion Hirapour is being described as the 6-5 favorite to defeat two-time Breeders' Cup winner McDynamo, the free-wheeling Preemptive Strike, and three others on Saturday, which is kind of amusing, since there is no parimutuel wagering being offered on the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase. Go figure.

In Great Britain, for instance, the jumping festivals at Cheltenham and Aintree trigger absolute betting frenzies. North America's far more limited jump-racing circuit tries hard to hold its own at the windows, but more often than not it is overwhelmed by traditional flat racing.

Without ready access to betting, or any kind of network or cable television coverage, it's hard to get the general racing public to care about anything. Top-level steeplechasing, however, is every bit as entertaining as its flat-racing equivalent. And yes, despite safety measures, horses will fall, riders will come unglued, and terrible tragedy can ensue. Toleration for such havoc is the devil's deal made by anyone who claims to be a fan of any kind of horse racing. Those who have trouble can always queue up for poker. No hard feelings.

The Breeders' Cup Steeplechase - Far Hills, Fair Hill, or otherwise - wouldn't feel right without the participation of Jonathan Sheppard, the Hall of Fame trainer who is known in the flat-racing world for his work with a host of major winners, including Storm Cat, Alice Springs, With Anticipation, and Rochester, winner of the recent Sycamore Handicap at Keeneland at the age of 9.

Sheppard won the 1988 Breeders' Cup Steeplechase with Jimmy Lorenzo and the 1989 and 1992 runnings with Highland Bud. For Saturday's running, he will be saddling Three Carat, a 5-year-old gelded son of the Storm Cat stallion Storm Broker. Three Carat was an unproven commodity when he jumped up to finish second to Hirapour in the New York Turf Writers Handicap at Saratoga in early September, but Sheppard is realistic about his chances.

"Of the four rather outstanding horses running over jumps in the country at this time, three of them are in the field," Sheppard noted, adding Preemptive Strike to Hirapour and McDynamo. Only Sur la Tete is missing. "If it had been a big field, and all four of those horses had shown up, I wouldn't be running him.

"One thing that is going to make it somewhat interesting, however, is that Preemptive Strike is a dyed-in-the-wool front-runner," Sheppard added. "He just blew the field apart in that stakes at the Meadowlands," the Somerset Medical Center Stakes on Oct. 1. "At one point he was practically going down the backside when the rest of them were going up the frontside. You might not want to take him on early, but you at least want to keep him in sight."

Sheppard is rarely seen in public without some kind of hat. But when he turns up with a horse at a top-flight jumping event like the BC Steeplechase, he wears two. In addition to his duties as a breeder, owner, and trainer, he also serves as president of the National Steeplechase Association, and it is one of his goals to see that the greater public gets a chance to participate in the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase program at Far Hills.

"There is some discussion to have betting on this race down the road," Sheppard said. "As part of a one-day meet, it would be hard to put mutuel machines at the course. But you could certainly have offtrack betting on the race at The Meadowlands and on simulcast."

Far Hills requires the Breeders' Cup runners to travel 2 5/8 miles, over 14 brush-topped fences, each of them 52 inches high. Sheppard describes the Far Hills course as a beautifully manicured oval with hillside spectator areas that will be filled with upwards of 45,000 fans on Saturday.

"When they turn into the stretch the last time, they come up a little chute to the finish line," he said. "That chute has a fairly sharp incline, then the ground levels off just before you get to the last fence. That makes it a fairly good test of stamina, and a closer does have a chance to make up ground.

"The one thing about jumpers is that you can't really duck anybody," Sheppard added. "There aren't that many opportunities. Very seldom, at this level and at weight-for-age, do you have a real shocker. But you don't know if you don't try."

And so he will try.