10/17/2002 11:00PM

The fact is, War Emblem has a shot to go all the way


PHOENIX-The level of talent in the Breeders' Cup makes the day's races tough to handicap. But one thing that can help is to determine which of the issues involved in handicapping the races are fact and which are fiction.

Fact: War Emblem is the horse beat in the Classic.

So he's a one-dimensional horse. At least it's the one dimension you want: speed. Truth is, he may be able to get his trip here without too much bother. Came Home and Medaglia d'Oro are best suited for stalking, and you know their connections don't want to risk furlongs nine and 10 by going nuts through the first six. The main speed hurdle - Godolphin's E Dubai - just doesn't seem as quick as War Emblem.

Obviously War Emblem isn't another Seattle Slew. He is, however, a horse capable of freaky-big efforts when things go his way, and less than big efforts when circumstances line up against him. But it's hardly a reach to believe he can make the top here, and if he can clear, well, you saw the Derby, the Preakness, and the Haskell, right?

Fiction: Beat Hollow is no match for the monster European milers.

Just a month or so ago they were lining up to back Beat Hollow after his Arlington Million win. Now he's about as popular as a migraine.

He lost the Shadwell Mile at Keeneland to Landseer, a top Euro miler who isn't regarded as in the same class as Rock of Gibraltar. The general consensus is that the American horses don't measure up to the best of the Euro invaders. Well, remember, Beat Hollow is one of those Euro invaders.

He was third in the Epsom Derby - as the favorite - behind Sinndar and Sakhee, still beating numerous top-class horses. Beat Hollow's loss at Keeneland merely shows they all get beat. Remember, Rock of Gibraltar has to ship, and what if Landseer doesn't get clear sailing like he got at Keeneland?

Fact: Top European turfers High Chaparral and Golan are too much for their American counterparts.

The best American distance turf horses are a decent lot, but none of them is a Manila. In fact, the best American hope is Denon, a European transplant. It's likely a Euro racing fan would scoff at the notion Denon could run with High Chaparral and Golan.

High Chaparral, the English and Irish Derby winner, is possibly the best 3-year-old router in Europe. Golan is possibly the top 12-furlong horse in Europe.

Denon, With Anticipation, Blazing Fury, and Falcon Flight are nice horses all, but this looks very much like last year, when Europe's Fantastic Light and Milan ran off and hid from the American contingent.

Fiction: Banks Hill showed some decline in the Yellow Ribbon and isn't up to defending her title in the Filly and Mare Turf.

She ran hard and gave Rock of Gibraltar a scare in France, losing by only a half-length in the Prix du Moulin at Longchamp. Then she shipped to the U.S., got rained out of the Flower Bowl at Belmont, shipped again to Southern California for the Yellow Ribbon, then ran into a hot filly in her own backyard while having a tough trip.

But that doesn't mean Banks Hill isn't as good or even better than the filly who was so monstrous winning the Filly and Mare Turf last year. The main hurdle this year won't be her form, but what is likely stronger opposition, led by Yellow Ribbon and Beverly D. winner Golden Apples, and some powerful European invaders. But don't assume that she isn't as good as last year. Unless the ground comes up soft in Chicago, she is still very much the horse to beat.

Fiction: Unbeaten juveniles Sky Mesa, Vindication, and Storm Flag Flying tower over their foes.

They've looked good, but they haven't made jaws drop. Vindication has yet to beat a really nice horse. Sky Mesa did win clearly in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, but ran greenly and didn't exactly power home. Storm Flag Flying must leave the friendly confines of New York. The Bob Baffert-trained Santa Catarina gave her a race in the Frizette, and now Baffert comes in with Composure, who may be even better.

Sky Mesa, Vindication, and Storm Flag Flying are deserving favorites, to be sure, but you don't need to look at too many Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies results to see things don't always work out so well for the chalk. We're talking young horses who are facing a lot of hurdles.

Fact: Kona Gold is good as ever at age 8 and can win the Sprint.

The veteran of four Breeders' Cup Sprint appearances signaled his readiness Monday, working five furlongs in 58.40 seconds under regular rider Alex Solis at Santa Anita. Solis could barely contain himself after the drill.

"He never has been working this good," Solis said. "He's working out of this world. It's so amazing how fast he's working and how easily he's doing it. He's coming into this race so good."

Only trainer Bruce Headley and Kona Gold's groom know him better than Solis, who isn't necessarily one for hyperbole. So if Solis says Kona Gold is doing great, then I believe him.

Besides, Kona Gold has almost always done his best work when fresh. And the way he won the Los Angeles Handicap at Hollywood this spring shows he's far from done. While Orientate, Xtra Heat, and Swept Overboard are good, they all have weaknesses, and this might not be such a strong field. The old guy can do it again.