10/21/2002 12:00AM

Filly and Mare Turf has look of a classic

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Now that Breeders' Cup week has arrived, here are some thoughts on the big day:

Many people, somewhat disheartened by both the lack of a compelling horse in the Classic and the imperfect Horse of the Year credentials of the race's most prominent candidates, are looking to hang their hat on another Breeders' Cup event.

But no matter how weak the Classic may seem, it is still by far - and always - the most important of the Breeders' Cup races. It is the race that makes John and Jane Q. Public drop what they are doing, turn on the television, and watch. When the Classic field is in the gate and ready for the start, even those who have lamented the quality of this year's field will be transfixed. The Breeders' Cup Classic is a lot like sex. There are no really bad Classics.

That said, the Breeders' Cup race that seems to have become the popular alternative this year to the Classic is the Distaff. Indeed, though the Distaff attracted only eight pre-entries, it boasts quality that is unusually strong and deep.

But, when it comes to potential alternatives to the Classic, the race that does it for me is the Filly and Mare Turf. Going in, this one has it all - quality and depth.

The Filly and Mare Turf has the defending champion, Banks Hill, whose victory in this race last year may have been the most impressive performance of all the 2001 Breeders' Cup winners. It has an American-based filly, Golden Apples, who has a deadly late kick and is effective every time she goes to the post. It has Islington, a filly who not only ran some freakish races in England but was also beaten only two lengths by the best males in Europe's premier fall event, the Arc de Triomphe. It has Kazzia, whose only loss came at the hands of Islington, but who beat Islington in June, and who has already won a big one on American soil.

The Filly and Mare Turf has, as pre-entrants, an Irish classic winner in Gossamer; a filly who has won more than half her starts in Voodoo Dancer; and two immensely promising and accomplished 3-year-olds, Riskaverse and Dublino.

The Filly and Mare Turf has iron speed, inexorable closers, and every single pre-entrant is in top form. It's a great race.

Heading toward a shorter Turf

If the pre-entries for the Breeders' Cup are any indication, the state of distance turf racing in this country is in alarming shape.

A record low of nine were pre-entered in the 1 1/2-mile Breeders' Cup Turf. Only six of them can be considered American-based and one of those, Falcon Flight, was supplemented. And, if you racked your brain for names of American horses who are missing from the Turf, the absolute best you could come up with is just one or two names.

The European representation in the Filly and Mare Turf isn't strong in terms of numbers, either. But, the situation is different for European horses. They had an alternative race this past Saturday in the Champion Stakes at Newmarket, and have another next month in the Japan Cup.

Could it be that the emphasis toward speed in breeding has finally come home to roost? If this is so, then we may see similar short fields in future Breeders' Cup Turfs. And, if that proves to be the case, in order to maintain the standards of the Breeders' Cup Turf, won't it make sense to consider reducing the distance to 1 1/4 miles?

Look to Woodbine

That this Breeders' Cup is being run at a brand-new site - Arlington Park - presents, from a handicapping standpoint, an additional factor to consider. The vast majority of horses who will compete in this Breeders' Cup have never raced at Arlington, a major wild card when it comes to figuring these races out.

Although the previous 18 runnings of the Breeders' Cup may sound like a reasonable sample to help deal with this issue, there is only one previous Breeders' Cup from which to draw a reasonable parallel: the 1996 Cup at Woodbine.

Like Woodbine, Arlington is a cold-weather site. Arlington, like Woodbine, is European-friendly. Woodbine's unusual turf course is outside its main track, meaning it's wide and sweeping, and inviting to European horses. European horsemen are quite familiar with Arlington, dating back to the inception of the Arlington Million in 1981. And, like this year at Arlington, the vast majority of those who competed in that 1996 Breeders' Cup at Woodbine never had previous experience over the track.

It's risky putting too much emphasis on the results of one Breeders' Cup program in an effort to handicap this one, but it's the best we can do.

Only two favorites won in those seven Breeders' Cup races at Woodbine, and one of those was a 4-1 shot (Lit De Justice in the Sprint). Five favorites at 7-5 or less bit the dust on that day. And, despite the European-friendly nature of Woodbine, only one race went to a European (Pilsudski in the Turf), although it must be said that European horses are more dangerous now in the Breeders' Cup than ever.

What does this tell us? Hang on to your hats.