11/03/2011 9:49AM

Crist: Breeders' Cup Saturday card should be strong on track and at windows

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Saturday’s nine Breeders’ Cup races are a staggeringly compelling card of racing, a combination of competitive, if not inscrutable, wagering propositions and showcases for many of the most talented horses on the planet.

The first five races fall into the first category, starting with the Marathon. American horses run 1 3/4 miles about as often as they skydive, and the Europeans who do have never raced on the dirt. I’ll side with distance over surface and try the imports Meeznah (12-1 morning line) and Brigantin (8-1) to upset the Americans A. U. Miner, Giant Oak, and Cease.

In the Juvenile Turf, there’s no guessing about the imports. The best American 2-year-olds race on the dirt, and none of the stateside runners looks as good on paper as the Europeans Caspar Netscher, Wrote, and Farraaj, so I took them in that order.

This hasn’t been a vintage year for American sprinters, and while defending champion Big Drama’s best races would win this, he’s had one start since January and missed his final prep. Instead, I’ll root for a pace meltdown and try to get the closers Jackson Bend and Amazombie to get up in the final strides.

The Turf Sprint looks eligible to light up the toteboard with longshots. I sentimentally picked the gallant old gelding Chamberlain Bridge, a winner of 17 of 36 career starts including the 2010 edition of this race, but also will take a shot with 20-1 Great Attack, making his second start off a summer layoff and a strong middle move in his return.

The Dirt Mile, like the Sprint, drew only nine runners but most of them have a solid chance. I went with Caleb’s Posse, unproven at a mile but an entirely different and better racehorse around one turn rather than two.

The last four Cup races are the showcase portion of the program.

Union Rags is an obvious and deserving favorite in the Juvenile and a special 2-year-old. Unbeaten in three very different sorts of performances – he won his debut as a closing sprinter, the Saratoga Special as a front-runner, and the Champagne from off the pace with a troubled trip. He faces his toughest test yet, trying two turns for the first time and facing the solid Californians Drill and Creative Cause, but he looks up to the task.

The Turf, always dominated by the Europeans, is more lopsided than ever this year with five imports rightfully the five favorites over four apparently overmatched Americans. The twist this year is that the most accomplished of the Europeans are a pair of star fillies, Sarafina and Midday, either of whom would have been the horse to beat in Friday’s Filly and Mare Turf but are instead aiming higher here against the European-based colts Await the Dawn, St Nicholas Abbey, and Sea Moon.

Goldikova will try to win the Mile for the fourth consecutive year in the final start of an unparalleled career that has already brought her 14 Grade 1 victories. She has suffered three narrow defeats this year but otherwise is running as well as she ever has, and can beat this field even if she has lost half a step. The imports Strong Suit and Byword are probably the biggest threats, but let’s not forget to tip our caps to Gio Ponti, who has won seven Grade 1 races, $6 million, and three Eclipse Awards.

The Classic is a fascinating finale to the day, with the 3-year-old, older-male, and Horse of the Year Eclipse Awards on the line. The three favorites are coming off daylight victories in three consecutive races in the mud at Belmont Park on Oct. 1: the 3-year-old colt Uncle Mo won the Kelso by three lengths in a blistering 1:33.82; the 4-year-old filly Havre de Grace won the Beldame by 8 1/4 lengths in 1:49.39; and the 5-year-old horse Flat Out took the Jockey Club Gold Cup by 2 1/4 lengths in 2:03.17.

It’s not an easy choice among them. Uncle Mo was the fastest and most brilliant, but now he stretches out to 10 furlongs and faces early pressure and late quality he’s never seen before. Havre de Grace has had the best season, won with something left in the tank, and beat Flat Out fair and square in the nine-furlong Woodward. Flat Out is proven at 10 furlongs and is an attractive 6-1 on the morning line.

I picked Uncle Mo out of hope, loyalty, and admiration, but with absolutely no confidence that he’ll get the distance. If I’m still alive in pick-whatevers, I’ll have all three of them and cross my fingers that the thoroughly admirable world traveler So You Think isn’t going to transfer his world-class form to the dirt – few horses do.

Win or lose, my even greater hope is that the long and rich careers of Goldikova, Gio Ponti, and So You Think inspire the owners of the younger horses to keep them in training next year instead of retiring them.