09/18/2007 11:00PM

Familiar faces lead way toward Classic

Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Street Sense gets a bath after working five furlongs in 1:00.60 on Wednesday at Churchill Downs.
This year's Breeders' Cup will be the first run at Monmouth Park, the first that will encompass two days, and the first that will include 11 races. Much will be new. But when it comes to the biggest and richest race of the 24th Breeders' Cup, familiarity is the rule.

Six months ago, the leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby included Street Sense, Curlin, Hard Spun, and Any Given Saturday. Since then, each has won at least one major race. Street Sense took the Derby and the Travers, Curlin won the Preakness, Hard Spun captured the King's Bishop, and Any Given Saturday roared to victory in the Haskell. And now, as championship day draws closer, they are still as prominent as ever. Along with Lawyer Ron, the nation's best older horse, those 3-year-olds are the leading contenders for the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 27.

"It's been a great year for 3-year-olds, unreal," said Carl Nafzger, who trains Street Sense. "It's the same horses. They're still here, and they're solid."

This year's Breeders' Cup will start Oct. 26 with three new races - the Juvenile Turf, Filly and Mare Sprint, and Dirt Mile. This marks the first expansion of the Breeders' Cup since the Filly and Mare Turf was added in 1999. On Oct. 27, the original seven races from the inaugural Breeders' Cup in 1984 - the Juvenile, Juvenile Fillies, Sprint, Mile, Turf, Distaff, and Classic - plus the Filly and Mare Turf all will be run on one card, per usual.

The 1 1/4-mile Classic could decide three Eclipse Awards: Horse of the Year, champion 3-year-old, and champion older horse. Street Sense is the current leader among 3-year-olds, Lawyer Ron among older horses. A victory by either in the Classic would make him Horse of the Year.

They will not meet until then. Lawyer Ron, according to trainer Todd Pletcher, will run in either the Grade 1, $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park on Sept. 30 - a race that Curlin is also targeting - or will skip that race and train straight up to the Classic.

Street Sense is scheduled to have one prep, likely on Sept. 29, in either the Grade 2, $350,000 Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park - where he would face Hard Spun - or the Grade 2, $500,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup. Nafzger on Wednesday said he would make a final decision Saturday.

The Classic will be the final race of Street Sense's career. Prior to his two previous biggest races, the Derby and last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Nafzger gave Street Sense his final prep race over Polytrack at Keeneland. Turfway has Polytrack.

Street Sense is training at Churchill Downs, where on Wednesday he worked five furlongs in 1:00.60 with jockey Calvin Borel.

"It was really good, a beautiful work," Nafzger said by telephone from his barn. "We're right on key, ready to go. If I was a coach of a football team, I'd be ready to play on Saturday."

There are three races this Saturday - all at 1 1/8 miles - with potential implications for the Classic. At Belmont Park, Any Given Saturday will face what should be a small field in the Grade 2, $150,000 Brooklyn Handicap. Grasshopper, a gallant second to Street Sense in the Travers, meets nine rivals in the Grade 2, $500,000 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs. And the $500,000 Massachusetts Handicap has been revived again by Suffolk Downs, but because it has not been contested since 2004, it has lost its graded status and thus drew a field a cut below the elite, headed by veterans Brass Hat and Evening Attire.

Any Given Saturday's victory in the Haskell marks him as a serious Classic contender, because he has a win - over Curlin and Hard Spun - at Monmouth. Earlier this year, he fought Street Sense to a close decision in the Tampa Bay Derby, but then seemed to regress in the Wood Memorial and Kentucky Derby.

"I thought he was a little flat in the Wood, but it wasn't a horrible race," said Pletcher, his trainer. "And in the Derby, he ran well to the eighth pole, then two days later had a foot bruise."

Since clearing that up, Any Given Saturday has been sensational, with dazzling victories in the Dwyer and Haskell.

"The freshening from the Derby to the Dwyer did him well," Pletcher said.

Pletcher said he chose the Brooklyn as a final prep for Any Given Saturday because "we're trying to follow a similar path to when he won the Haskell, going from a one-turn race at Belmont to a two-turn race at Monmouth."

Grasshopper was sent to the Super Derby because "keeping him in his division against 3-year-olds right now was probably the wise choice," said his trainer, Neil Howard.

"He's a little light on seasoning," Howard said. "This allows him to stay with 3-year-olds for at least another race. I'm sure there's improvement in the future for him. He's starting to fill out quite a bit. I do think he can get better, and he can get stronger physically."

Curlin, who skipped the Travers to point for a fall campaign, is training at Saratoga and will head to Belmont Park next Wednesday, trainer Steve Asmussen said.

In California, the major prep for the Classic is the Grade 1, $500,000 Goodwood Stakes at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting on Sept. 29. Tiago, the Santa Anita Derby and Swaps Stakes winner, is expected for that race, as is Pacific Classic runner-up Awesome Gem. Student Council, who won the Pacific Classic, will run there or in the Hawthorne Gold Cup.

Tiago bypassed the Pacific Classic because trainer John Shirreffs did not feel comfortable running him over Del Mar's Polytrack surface. Santa Anita has put in Cushion Track, the same synthetic surface that is at Hollywood Park, where Tiago trains regularly and where he won the Swaps.

"He's been training brilliantly," Shirreffs said.