10/24/2001 11:00PM

Distaff: Not one but two championships on line

Email

ELMONT, N.Y. - When John Gaines conceptualized the Breeders' Cup nearly two decades ago, he envisioned a race like Saturday's Distaff at Belmont Park. No 3-year-old filly has clearly demonstrated her superiority in that division this year. Similarly, no older filly or mare has been dominant. So, two championships are at stake in this year's Distaff, and that is why it has drawn a near-capacity field of 13.

A victory by Exogenous, Fleet Renee, or Flute would lock up the 3-year-old filly title. And Critical Eye, Miss Linda, Pompeii, Spain, or Tranquility Lake could secure an Eclipse Award as the nation's best older female runner.

That was among the reasons why Bob and Lee Acklerley, the owners of Miss Linda, decided to spend $400,000 to supplement their speedy Spinster Stakes winner to the Distaff.

"They made it easy," said John Kimmel, Miss Linda's trainer. "They said if the filly was nominated, would I consider running? If she was nominated, I'd have had no question. They said to take the supplement out of the formula."

The supplemental fee from Miss Linda increased the Distaff's purse to $2.36 million from its base purse of $2 million. The race is run at 1 1/8 miles, which is around just one turn on the main track at sweeping Belmont Park.

There are plenty of story lines in this year's Distaff, the first of the eight Breeders' Cup races. Spain, who won the race at 55-1 last year, will be seeking to become only the fifth horse to win a Breeders' Cup race twice. Trainer Bobby Frankel, who enters the day with a 0-for-36 record in the Breeders' Cup, sends out morning-line favorite Flute, a filly to whom he has grown emotionally close. Exogenous (Javier Castellano) and longshot Queenie Belle (Brice Blanc) are ridden by jockeys who are making their Breeders' Cup debuts. And Unbridled Elaine will be racing just seven days after her owner, Roger Devenport, decided to switch trainers for the second time in four months.

Miss Linda figures to be among the early pacesetters, with Tranquility Lake, Starrer, and Queenie Belle in closest pursuit. Flute, Spain, and Unbridled Elaine also should be prominent early, with Fleet Renee just behind that flight. Exogenous and Critical Eye are among those who will be nearer the rear early.

Exogenous, Flute, and Spain all will be hoping for cleaner trips than they had when they finished in that order when they met three weeks ago here in the Beldame Stakes. Exogenous lugged in badly, Flute ended up on what seemed to be a dead rail, and Spain had to be steadied twice in the stretch to avoid a collision with Exogenous.

Exogenous, owned by Vernon Heath's Centaur Farms Inc., has won two straight Grade 1 races since blinkers were added, including the Sept. 8 Gazelle Handicap here. She veered in in the Beldame because "she doesn't want to be hit right-handed," according to her trainer, Scotty Schulhofer, who said Castellano will not make the same mistake again.

Randy Schulhofer, his father's top assistant, is credited by his father with being instrumental to Exogenous's development. Randy Schulhofer said the key to Exogenous was having the patience to let her develop.

"She made us be patient," Randy Schulhofer said. "She wasn't doing all that good in Florida earlier this year. She had some hind-end problems, too. We started doing acupuncture, either once a week, or every two weeks, and that made quite a difference in her."

Flute, a sweet-tempered filly by Seattle Slew, has never finished worse than second in seven starts, and her four victories include the prestigious Kentucky Oaks and Alabama Stakes. "I got close to her at Churchill Downs," Frankel said. "I only had a few horses there with me at the time. I didn't realize how kind she was until I started spending more time with her. If she was smaller, I'd take her home with me."

Frankel said that when the since-retired Beautiful Pleasure lugged out in the Beldame, carrying Spain and Exogenous wide, it forced jockey Jerry Bailey on Flute to dive for the rail. "It was the worst part of the track that day," Frankel said.

Spain has "bounced back super" from the Beldame, according to her trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, who said it would be "a hell of a feat" if Spain could win the Distaff for the second straight year.