10/09/2003 11:00PM

Classic absentees leave us asking, 'What if?'

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PHOENIX - What I learned on my Breeders' Cup preview vacation . . .

* That the most alluring BC Classic since Sunday Silence-Easy Goer IV has fizzled before it ever had a chance to sizzle, with the defection of Candy Ride and Funny Cide, and the retirements of Mineshaft, Milwaukee Brew, and Empire Maker. It's nobody's fault. Three of the horses are hurt, and in the other cases the connections are doing what they think is best for their horse. I guarantee you all the connections of those horses would love to win the BC Classic.

At least Candy Ride and Funny Cide can still set things right with monster 2004 campaigns. Empire Maker may be the best of his generation, but many seem to be ranking him on what he would have done rather than what he has achieved. I do think that if all the 3-year-olds show up with their "A" game, Empire Maker wins, but that's why we run the races; it's not what they can do, it's what they actually do.

As for Mineshaft, I'm more disappointed because this was his chance to prove he belonged among the elite. As impressive as he looked this year there are still an unanswered question: Who did he beat? The horses who got closest to him this year were Learned, Olmodavor, American Style, Western Pride, Volponi, Dollar Bill, Hold That Tiger, Quest, and State Shinto. Yes, Mineshaft beat Moon Ballad but that doesn't mean nearly as much as it might have a few months ago.

Those are all nice horses but the best of the division - Candy Ride, Congaree, Milwaukee Brew, Medaglia d'Oro, and Perfect Drift - were not among Mineshaft's vanquished. Of course it's not Mineshaft's fault they didn't meet, but the one time he faced a truly top horse - Perfect Drift - he got beat. And don't you think Candy Ride, Congaree, Perfect Drift, and Medaglia d'Oro wouldn't have likewise toyed with the likes of Quest, Western Pride, Dollar Bill, and the others?

Then there are the Beyers. Mineshaft surely ran fast, rattling off the same type of figs we saw from Cigar. But those Beyers also leave him well behind Candy Ride this year and behind such horses as Formal Gold, Skip Away, and Gentlemen in the past decade. A BC Classic tour de force over the best remaining elders and 3-year-olds would have stamped Mineshaft as one for the ages. Now, his accomplishments are just argument fodder.

* That just because Bob Baffert wheels out his army of 2-year-olds it doesn't mean he can just punch his ticket to the winner's circle. His Cooperation finished seventh in the Breeders' Futurity and his three-headed monster of Consecrate, Coldntight, and Odds On finished fifth, eighth, and ninth in the Norfolk. Since the inception of the Breeders' Cup in 1984 there hasn't been a BC Juvenile without a runner from either Baffert or D. Wayne Lukas - that may all change in a couple weeks.

I also learned horsemen seem to be running scared of the BC Juvenile if they harbor Derby hopes. How else can you explain the winners of three of the most important races for 2-year-old males - the Champagne, Breeders' Futurity, and Norfolk - not showing up?

* That Keeneland's Breeders' Futurity will be the definitive 2-year-old race as far as next year's Derby picture goes. Eurosilver was nothing short of dazzling. He was off the rail, racing wide, and well back early. More often than not that spells doom at Keeneland. You just don't win from there, at least not until this year when the bias has not be so severe. Eurosilver threw in a wonderful three-eighths of a mile run and looked as if he could have gone around again. His pedigree of Unbridled's Song out of a Nijinsky II mare says route, route, route. Also, runner-up Tiger Hunt, by Kris S. out of a Conquistador Cielo mare (likewise, stamina top and bottom) finished strongly to not only validate his Cradle win at River Downs but show he belongs with the elite. Fourth-place finisher Value Plus (Unbridled's Song) had a troubled trip and still holds considerable promise.

* That Designed for Luck's Oak Tree BC Mile win and Perfect Soul's Shadwell Mile win show that while the North American milers are a solid bunch, they seem to take turns beating each other. The bottom line is they seem ripe for the plucking by the Europeans, who are coming with some of their major miler strength: Oasis Dream, Refuse to Bend, and others. Of course, the draw is crucial but it wouldn't stun me in the least to see a European sweep in the Mile.

* That if Allen Jerkens doesn't belong in that small club of greatest trainers ever then the room should be empty. He made his reputation as the "Giant Killer" with high-profile upsets over big horses such as Secretariat, Kelso, Gentlemen, and Skip Away, and in last week's Frizette he took a relatively unknown filly in Society Selection, armed only with a six-furlong maiden win at Saratoga nearly two months prior, and beat the best 2-year-old fillies the East Coast has to offer. She has a pedigree to stay, and while Jerkens's lone BC foray to California - Sky Beauty's fifth-place finish in the 1993 Distaff - didn't turn out too well, he certainly has a filly who belongs in the BC Juvenile Fillies. Yes, Halfbridled and Class Above look imposing, but who else is there to fear, particularly when you have Mr. Jerkens calling the shots?