10/27/2009 11:00PM

Cup show relies on ensemble cast

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On the day after pre-entries were taken for the inaugural Breeders' Cup, in 1984, John Henry came up lame. America's best and most popular racehorse was scratched from the event, leaving the sport's first attempt at a season-ending championship event without its preeminent personality. Somehow, the Breeders' Cup survived.

During 1997, American racing was blessed with an unprecedented collection of brilliant 3-year-olds and very fast older horses, all of them thoroughly tested in the toughest battlefield conditions. A dream Breeders' Cup Classic at Hollywood Park was on the distant horizon, featuring Silver Charm, Free House, Formal Gold, Gentlemen, Siphon, and Skip Away. One by one they fell away, because of reasons both economic and physical, until only Skip Away was left to romp by six. Somehow, the Cup survived.

From the beginning, the Breeders' Cup promised its public the best of the best on a day so memorable that each of the winners deserved to be called a champion. This was good public relations, and for the most part the idea has held up in the court of public opinion. Human nature, though, tends to dwell on the half-empty part of the glass, which is why attention during recent weeks has dwelt on the fabulous missing, Rachel Alexandra and Sea the Stars.

With the announcement of the 166 pre-entered horses for the 2009 Breeders' Cup events at Santa Anita, on Nov. 6 and 7, Rachel A. and STS are officially yesterday's news. Neither horse, to be frank, was ever a serious candidate for a Breeders' Cup appearance. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Their year-end honors are assured, but for the next week and a half they must be content with prominent seating on the all-star list of celebrated Breeders' Cup no-shows, along with the likes of Holy Bull, Mineshaft, Criminal Type, Spend a Buck, Smarty Jones, Point Given, Charismatic, and Afleet Alex. At least they're in good company.

Those who insist that any Breeders' Cup is less of an experience because certain headline horses don't show probably are also among the crowd that believes a Triple Crown winner would save racing. Sure, it's always great to watch the alpha animals in action. And when they rise to the occasion - Ferdinand and Alysheba, Personal Ensign and Winning Colors, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer - great opera ensues. But the Cup was never meant to be about a marquee handful of horses, otherwise it would never have recovered from the John Henry blow. The Cup is all about how very good a whole herd of Thoroughbreds can be, as representatives of both the breed, and of the skills of the people who handle them.

Each Breeders' Cup, pre-ordained in time and place, presents its own peculiar set challenges. At sites like Arlington, Woodbine, and Churchill Downs, there is always the cold, just as Gulfstream could be too warm for its own good. There was the wet-fast surface at Belmont Park in 1995, over which not every horse was comfortable, the sudden mud of Lone Star Park, when a dry week turned aquatic overnight, and the sloppy ordeal at Monmouth Park, a circumstance that elevated the winners and compromised the rest.

The challenges this time around are obvious. For the Europeans, the first week in November is as late as any of them will ever run during an intense season that has no breaks at the top of the game. For the North Americans not based in California Canada, or certain parts of Kentucky, it will mark another shot in the synthetic dark, running over a Pro-Ride surface of carpet, rubber, and engineered sand.

For the best of them, it should not matter. And the best this time around will include Zenyatta, Goldikova, Conduit, Gio Ponti, Mine That Bird, Quality Road, Zensational, Lookin at Lucky, Forever Together, Music Note, Summer Bird, Gayego, D' Funnybone, Magical Fantasy, Careless Jewel, Ventura, Regal Ransom, Rip Van Winkle and Einstein. If that is not enough to satisfy horseplayers and fans, let them watch baseball in the snow.

For the last week or so, the HRTV racing network has been airing ancient Breeders' Cup telecasts in the late-evening hours. Given the hard choice between the fourth time around on some "Law and Order: SVU" rerun and the 1985 Breeders' Cup from Aqueduct, or the 1987 Breeders' Cup from Hollywood Park, I went with the ponies.

I was rewarded with the sight of handicappers Pete Axthelm and Harvey Pack going at each other like Oscar and Felix, of British matinee idol Brough Scott holding forth on the smattering of European hopefuls, of an injured Gary Stevens in his first gig as TV analyst, touting the horses he would have been riding while quietly cursing his rotten luck.

Dick Enberg, I had forgotten, nailed that 1987 Classic on the nose when he speculated that Bill Shoemaker would wait as long as midstretch before turning Ferdinand loose. As if cued from the booth, that is exactly what happened, and Ferdinand beat Alysheba on the nod. Tom Durkin's call of the '85 Sprint was a flawless piece of work, picking up every nuance of Chris McCarron's winning ride on Precisionist. And yes, once again, Tasso nailed Storm Cat on the wire. Guess who won that one in the long run.

Critics will contend that present-day leaders of the Breeders' Cup have allowed the event to be diluted with too many races spread over two days, thereby creating its own anticlimactic moments. I happen to agree. But I also agree with Axthelm, who stood in what he described as the "gloom" of a late Long Island afternoon and said with just the right amount of amazement that the Breeders' Cup, in only its second year, had somehow managed to survive Aqueduct. And look what happened.