09/30/2008 11:00PM

BC's biggest twist - synthetics

Bill Denver/Equiphotos
Big Brown (left) will ship to Santa Anita in late October for the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic and a shot at Horse of the Year, but no one knows whether Curlin will show up to face him.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The Breeders' Cup will be held for the 25th time this year, for the seventh time in Southern California, and for the fourth time here, at Santa Anita Park. In every previous running, the main-track races were run on good old-fashioned dirt. This year, however, it's a whole new world championship.

For the first time, the Breeders' Cup will run its main-track races on a synthetic track, Santa Anita's newly installed Pro-Ride surface. The Breeders' Cup itself has undergone plenty of alterations in recent years - an expansion to 14 races, encompassing two days - but no change has been more debated than running on a synthetic track.

The move to a synthetic surface has caused many North American-based trainers to cautiously approach this year's Breeders' Cup. It may even cost the event Curlin, the reigning Horse of the Year and the defending champion of the richest Breeders' Cup race, the $5 million Classic. But the synthetic revolution is a large reason why so many top European grass runners, such as Duke of Marmalade, Henrythenavigator, and Spirit One, are under consideration for the Classic.

One horse who is already all in is Big Brown, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner.

"We're just hoping he likes the track," his trainer, Rick Dutrow, said this week from New York. "Everybody will be in the same boat, except for those who run well over the track over the next few weeks."

The Pro-Ride era at Santa Anita began Wednesday, opening day of the Oak Tree meeting. The reviews of the surface this weekend, when seven Grade 1 races are run, are likely to have a major impact on the scope of participation from across the country and around the world.

"To me, the verdict is still out," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "It's premature to make any judgment until they run races over it."

The Breeders' Cup will be held Oct. 24-25. It became a two-day event at Monmouth Park last year, when three races were added, and run on Friday, as an appetizer to the Elite Eight on Saturday.

This year, three more races have been added, bringing the total to 14, worth a total of $25 million. On Friday, Oct. 24, five BC races will be run, all for females, including the newly named Ladies' Classic, formerly known as the Distaff. The remaining nine BC races will be run on Saturday, Oct. 25, with the Classic anchoring that card.

Pre-entries for the Breeders' Cup are scheduled to be announced on Oct. 16. Final entries are due, and post positions will be drawn, on Oct. 21. This year, for the first time, races that have more than the maximum number of final entries - 14 in 11 races, 12 in the other three - will have up to two also-eligibles, who could scratch in if a horse in the main body of the race defects between final entry day and race day.

Many of the slots in each Breeders' Cup race have been claimed through the Breeders' Cup's Win and You're In program, which this year numbered 57 races. Both major preps this weekend for the Classic, the Grade 1, $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park and the Grade 1, $500,000 Goodwood Stakes at Santa Anita, are Win and You're In races.

The presence of Big Brown makes the Classic a likely title decider for Horse of the Year, regardless of who else shows up. But the race would obviously take on far more significance, and offer the marquee match-up of the year, if Curlin runs, too.

"Is Curlin coming?" Dutrow asked.

In a word - maybe. Jess Jackson, Curlin's majority owner, has left open the possibility, while stopping far short of commiting to the race. Curlin's trainer, Steve Asmussen, said his focus this week is on the Jockey Club Gold Cup, in which Curlin will attempt to pass Cigar as the richest horse to ever be based in North America.

"It's a huge goal," Asmussen said.

Jackson said the chance of Curlin participating in the Classic will be determined after the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

The possibility of a showdown that every fan would love to see excites Dutrow.

"This might be the most exciting Breeders' Cup, just the Classic," he said. "You've got all these superstars. Curlin and Big Brown battling for Horse of the Year, all those good horses from Europe. You line up all those horses at once. I am so excited to watch this race."

Who would win?

"We think we have the best horse, just like the people with Curlin think they have the best horse," Dutrow said.

Dutrow said that Big Brown, who had his final prep on the turf at Monmouth nearly two weeks ago, will train at Aqueduct and ship to Santa Anita early the week of the Breeders' Cup, "on the 20th or 21st" of October, he said.

"He's doing good," Dutrow said. "I wanted to get a race in him and have plenty of time before the Breeders' Cup. When I'm running in a big race, I want a good race 45 days before the big one. As long as he's doing good, we're going to show up."

Dutrow will be gunning for his second Classic, and, with it, his second Horse of the Year, having pulled off the parlay in 2005 with Saint Liam.

"With Saint Liam, we knew he liked the track, and he didn't have to ship across the country," Dutrow said. "Big Brown is going to have to show up out there against a real solid group of older horses."

Many of those older horses are racing on Saturday. Curlin is scheduled to face A. P. Arrow, Ravel, Timber Reserve, and the improving 3-year-old Mambo in Seattle in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which is at 1 1/4 miles, the same distance as the Classic.

Here at Santa Anita, 11 horses were entered on Wednesday in the 1 1/8-mile Goodwood, including Spirit One, the Arlington Million winner, who will be making his first start on a synthetic surface. His rivals include Well Armed, the Pacific Classic runner-up, and Tiago.

Also Saturday, Stream Cat heads the field in the Grade 2, $350,000 Kentucky Cup Classic at 1 1/8 miles at Turfway Park, and Henrythenavigator is scheduled to run in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at one mile on turf at Ascot.

Go Between, the winner of the Pacific Classic, and Colonel John, the Travers Stakes winner, are both being trained straight into the BC Classic and will not have a prep. Also being trained straight into the race is Student Council, who disappointed in this year's Pacific Classic but was a sharp runner-up to Commentator in the Whitney in his previous start.