10/24/2007 11:00PM

Cover all bases by using four Classic favorites

EmailNEW YORK - For the other 364 days a year, we can complain that our best horses spend so much of their brief careers ducking one another before being whisked off to the breeding shed. Saturday is the exception, a day to celebrate their finally assembling in one place for the eight Breeders' Cup races that will define the 2007 racing season and crown a Horse of the Year.

That title will be decided one way or another in the Breeders' Cup Classic, where the 3-year-olds Any Given Saturday, Curlin, Hard Spun, Street Sense, and Tiago will all congregate for the first time since the Kentucky Derby and take on Lawyer Ron, the best older horse in the nation. The seemingly hopeless longshots Awesome Gem, Diamond Stripes, and George Washington complete a field of nine.

I will be going four-deep in my pick-everythings with the quartet of morning-line favorites - Lawyer Ron at 5-2, Curlin and Street Sense at 3-1, and Any Given Saturday at 4-1 with a slight lean in Street Sense's direction. He has risen to the occasion in the BC Juvenile, Kentucky Derby, and Travers and is training as well as ever. If Street Sense can do it one more time, he will have earned a major niche in American racing history for those three major triumphs, topped off by a Classic.

The four of them, however, figure just inches apart on paper. In February, Street Sense beat Any Given Saturday by a nose in the Tampa Bay Derby. In May, Curlin beat Street Sense by a head in the Preakness. Last month, it was Curlin by a neck over Lawyer Ron in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Those three photo finishes speak to how closely matched these four are, and why a handicapper's time might be better spent on the day's other seven races than on drawing fine lines among the four Classic favorites.

The day's other biggest story, and its heaviest favorite, is Dylan Thomas, who is unlikely to be named the Horse of the Year in this country but will rightly be called the best horse in the world if he can follow up four Group 1 European victories, including the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, with a victory in the BC Turf. On paper he towers over a field that includes two previous Turf winners, Better Talk Now and Red Rocks, but his scariest opponent is history: All nine other Arc winners who have tried the Turf have failed.

The day's other races will determine many of the sport's divisional championships and its early favorites for next year's classics. There's a lot of guesswork in the juvenile races, since the fast favorites are coming off one-turn dirt races while those with two-turn form emerge from slower events on synthetic tracks. I'm sticking with the one-turn dirt group in both events, favoring Tale of Ekati and War Pass in the Juvenile and Indian Blessing in the Juvenile Fillies. Both races will be teeming with live longshots, though, such as Tasha's Miracle (12-1) in the filly race.

The day's two other races for fillies are grab bags. I prefer Honey Ryder in the Filly and Mare Turf and Unbridled Belle in the Distaff, but there are half a dozen reasonable alternatives in both races. There's not much to dislike about 7-for-7 Nashoba's Key in the Filly and Mare Turf, but it might pay to be parimutuelly skeptical about a filly who has never left California or ever faced a field full of Grade 1 opposition.

Midnight Lute will win the Sprint if he replicates his spectacular Forego Handicap performance at Saratoga, but he's a massive horse who will have to work out a trip in a quick field while racing a bit shorter than his best distance. In the Mile, Excellent Art is a legitimate Group 1 miler in Europe, and in theory that puts him a few lengths ahead of the Americans, but he will have to be that much better, and get a little lucky, too, to overcome a poor outside draw.

Everything else, though, is mere prelude to the Classic, the race we have been waiting to see all year. If all goes according to plan, they will turn into the stretch with Hard Spun in front and Lawyer Ron in close pursuit. I imagine Lawyer Ron tackling and getting by Hard Spun with a furlong to go, then here comes the cavalry as Curlin, Any Given Saturday, and Street Sense all close in. The four of them go down to the wire in a sensational photo finish, and the Classic winner - just like Ghostzapper in 2004, Saint Liam in 2005, and Invasor in 2006 - is the Horse of the Year.