10/09/2003 11:00PM

Breeders' Cup of the few, the brave

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Right on schedule, the breed has begun to fall apart. What other conclusion can be drawn?

Everything was going fine last March. There were a few hiccups among Triple Crown 3-year-olds in May and June. The summer passed in a golden haze of glorious competition, with all players at their best, and the glow carried into the early autumn, as freshened stars flexed in preparation for the grand finale - the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships - scheduled for the end of October.

Then, carnage. These past few weeks have produced a plague of bad news. Barely a day goes by without another bulletin of a top horse injured, retired, or mothballed for the winter. The Breeders' Cup, once the pot of gold at the end of the season's rainbow, suddenly has become a negative force field, a scary place from which to run screaming into the night.

Okay, that's a little extreme. But racing fans have a right to wonder. All year long they are told the Breeders' Cup is the ultimate destination, where great horses gather and champions are crowned. Now, instead of rose petals, the road to the Breeders' Cup is strewn with broken bones and shattered dreams.

Sorry, went off the deep end again. Perhaps it would be sufficient to simply recite the list of horses who we thought, just the other day, would be running in the Breeders' Cup, but will not. Buckle up:

Mineshaft, Candy Ride, Funny Cide, and Empire Maker lead the heartbreak list. Dalakhani, Alamshar, Moon Ballad, Mubtaker, Kris Kin, Dubai Destination, and Domedriver will not be joining the party from Europe. The absence of Eurosilver, Ruler's Court, Birdstone, and Silver Wagon has gutted the Juvenile, while Bird Town, Avanzado, Soto, Disturbingthepeace, Beau's Town, Ghostzapper, and Najran have sent regrets for other races on the Breeders' Cup plate.

Enough griping. Maybe it's time to look at the Breeders' Cup as almost half full. Let's hear it for anyone who shows up, since Thoroughbreds, more than ever, have become as frail as hothouse flowers, liable to go as bad as runny cheese with barely a hard race, or exposure to harsh language.

And save a special cheer for those older Breeders' Cup runners who arrive at Santa Anita on the big day with a full campaign beneath their belts. These are extra-value animals with old school constitutions, upon whose strong shoulders the game can feel safe and sound.

Come Breeders' Cup Day, they will be found scattered throughout the card. Azeri, if she bounces back from her loss, leads the way. The rock solid mare has run 14 times since the beginning of 2002. Honor in War, a contender in the Mile, clocked in last January and has yet to take a serious break, holding his form in very good company.

Balto Star, winner of the United Nations and aiming for the Breeders' Cup Turf, is in the same category. He has run every month this year, twice in September, without a complaint. Similar praise goes for Sprint candidates Shake You Down (10 starts in 2003, beginning in January) and Bluesthestandard (nine races, mid-February through early October).

The latest of these full-time players to jump into the Breeders' Cup mix is Fleetstreet Dancer, the 4-year-old product of the brief May-December romance between Smart Strike, a son of Mr. Prospector, and Street Ballet, a daughter of Nijinsky. When they met and mated in 1997, he was 5 and she was 20. Cradle robber.

Fleetstreet Dancer has the right attitude, with eight starts this year beginning in February, and he is in the best form of his life, with a close second last time out to Pleasantly Perfect in the Goodwood Handicap. The one obvious flaw in an otherwise respectable resume is his lack of a victory this year, or a stakes victory ever. He could try to fix that in the Breeders' Cup Classic if his owners, Lee and Ty Leatherman, decide to take the plunge.

"For the $120,000 entry fee, you want to try and make sure you look like one of the top four horses in the race," said Doug O'Neill, who has trained Fleetstreet Dancer for the past year.

"He was never better than he was going into the last race," O'Neill said of the Goodwood. "If there ever was a day to attack, that was it. He came out of it okay, although he's one of those horses who take three or four days to recover. He puts so much into a race, or even a work - you'll notice his work tab doesn't have many works. It's been gallop, gallop, gallop. But that's been keeping him sound, and keeping his weight on."

O'Neill has never saddled a Breeders' Cup starter.

"We've got until next Wednesday," the trainer said. "Then we have to put up the first $60,000. I know it's not coming out of my pocket, but at the same time it's money my owners can use to reinvest in horses, pay bills. It's hard to throw 120 grand out there.

"So I don't know yet if it will happen," O'Neill added. "But hopefully I'll be talking to you after Wednesday and preparing him for the Breeders' Cup."