10/24/2007 11:00PM

Big names absent at this BC

EmailCARLSBAD, Calif. - How tough is it to get to the Breeders' Cup? Don't ask. I made it all the way to New Jersey last Monday only to find out that back home in Southern California there were guys wearing uniforms and carrying bullhorns strongly suggesting that residents of my neighborhood pack up and split, lest the flames of the unpredictable Witch Fire consume them without remorse.

That's right, in California we've got so many fires, we give them names.

So I hopped right back aboard another jet - different airport, different carrier - and headed West to be with my frazzled family. The good news was seizing back the three hours I had lost to the East in the first leg of the trip. The bad news? Where to begin. Let's just say I am reasonably confident I was the only American traveler last Monday to suffer through two showings of the in-flight movie "Evan Almighty," once on Continental, and once on United.

It turned out that the fires spared our town, while burning, at last count, more than 300,000 acres of San Diego County and destroying more than 1,300 homes. The fact that I would be losing my perfect attendance record after 23 years worth of Breeders' Cups seemed to be a petty concern. Somehow, coverage continued.

How hard is it to get to the Breeders' Cup? From the start, it was clear that the season-ending Cup would be just as much about the players who fell by the wayside as it was the lucky bunch who made it all the way to game day.

To illustrate, consider the very first running of the Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park, on Nov. 10, 1984. The Breeders' Cup Turf lost both its first and second choices between pre-entries and post time when John Henry and then Seattle Song suffered career-ending injuries, while in the Breeders' Cup Classic, the status of favored Slew o' Gold was touch and go for the entire week leading up to the race as trainer John Hertler and his staff wrestled with multiple quarter cracks. Slew o' Gold ran, obviously less than his best, and still was beaten only a head and a half after being bounced around between Wild Again and Gate Dancer. The real Slew o' Gold would have shouldered them aside.

For this year's running, the cast of no-shows is formidable, enough even to make the "glass half full" crowd gulp and ask what went wrong. Each of them started the year surrounded by reasonable expectations that the Breeders' Cup would provide a fitting climax to the season. One by one, hopes went up in smoke.

Invasor, reigning Horse of the Year, defending champion of the Breeders' Cup Classic, and winner this year of the Donn Handicap and the Dubai World Cup, didn't make it past June. He fractured a sesamoid in a hind leg and was retired.

Rags to Riches, filly sensation, winner of the Kentucky Oaks and the Belmont Stakes, and arguably the most popular Thoroughbred in the game, emerged from her loss in the Gazelle Stakes on Sept. 15 with a fractured pastern. Ouch and out for the year.

Corey Nakatani does not have a mount. Go figure. All he's done is win seven Breeders' Cup races, more than such notable contemporaries as John Velazquez and Frankie Dettori, most recently in 2006 aboard Thor's Echo in the Sprint. Nakatani rides six at Santa Anita on Saturday, a long way from Oceanport.

The list goes on. Wayne Lukas, the all-time leading trainer of Breeders' Cup horses in terms of purses, winners, and starters, has no starters. Neither does Neil Drysdale, Andre Fabre, or Shug McGaughey, who among them have sent out the winners of 19 Breeders' Cup events.

Edgar Prado, Eclipse Award-winning jockey of 2006 and a three-time Breeders' Cup winner in the last two years, was firmly attached to such Breeders' Cup contenders as Benny the Bull, Oprah Winney, and Cosmonaut as the summer drew to a close. Then he broke his ankle in a race at Saratoga on Labor Day, and that was that.

Nearly two months later, Prado is still fifth in the national money standings. He tried hard to make it back into the lineup for the Breeders' Cup, and he was willing to give it a try had his American Oaks winner Panty Raid been running Saturday. Still, without at least a few days in the saddle to test the ankle, Prado balked at the idea of trying to ride his typically full Breeders' Cup card. He has too much respect for the event.

"I worked very hard, day after day, to be more than 100 percent ready if possible," Prado said. "But this is not the prom. This is the Big Dance, you know."

Despite the missing names, the dance floor is filled with quality, led by Dylan Thomas, Lawyer Ron, Street Sense, Curlin, Hard Spun, Midnight Lute, and Nashoba's Key. Panty Raid is not running, though, which means Prado will be watching the Breeders' Cup from the sidelines for the first time in 10 years.

"It's nothing to be ashamed about," he said. "I'll go to the races if possible, to say hi to everybody, and watch the horses run that I could have rode. There will be a lot of great riders, trainers, and owners there to give it the bright shine that the Breeders' Cup needs to continue to be successful."