Updated on 09/17/2011 12:31PM

Give Mineshaft credit: He didn't run and hide

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - Mineshaft is not a beloved underdog or a horse with an aura of romance about him; he is a blue-blooded Thoroughbred from an elite stable.

Nevertheless, he ought to be the people's choice as he tries to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Breeders' Cup Classic, and the Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year.

Since he arrived in this country from England a year ago, Mineshaft has been campaigning steadily and running in the most important stakes races - a schedule that makes him an anomaly in American racing.

He captured the Grade 1 Suburban Handicap in July, beating Volponi, the winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Classic. He ran away with the prestigious Woodward Stakes earlier this month. Saturday, he will run in Belmont Park's $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup. Then he will head west to close out his career in the Breeders' Cup on Oct. 25.

That race at Santa Anita might have been a classic indeed - a showdown involving the strongest group of older horses in years, notably the undefeated Candy Ride. But Mineshaft is one of the few stars likely to show up.

Trainer Ron McAnally surprised the racing world this week by announcing that Candy Ride wouldn't run in the Breeders' Cup. Even more surprising was his professed reason: The Argentine import needed a rest after racing all of three times in 2003. "I don't want to hurt him," McAnally said. "The Breeders' Cup is such a tough race."

Plenty of cynical racetrack people, who know that trainers rarely tell the truth about injuries to top horses, suspect that this is a bogus explanation. After winning the Pacific Classic in sensationally fast time, Candy Ride was the favorite in future betting on the Breeders' Cup Classic.

A victory would have made him Horse of the Year, and it seems implausible that any trainer or owner would pass up such an opportunity. Regardless of the reason, Candy Ride shouldn't be considered for any year-end honors now.

The sport will hurt itself if it bestows championships on horses who run away and hide after one or two impressive wins.

There are no questions about the talent and fitness of Perfect Drift. One of the best horses in the country, he beat Mineshaft in a photo finish at Churchill Downs this summer and defeated the brilliant Congaree in his last start. Even so, trainer Murray Johnson insists that he will pass the Breeders' Cup.

Johnson's rationale is that Perfect Drift is a gelding; he has no incentive to pursue championships that would enhance the value of males with a stud career ahead. The trainer aims to manage Perfect Drift judiciously and get years of productivity from him. Such caution would be a sound strategy for a lesser horse. But it makes no sense - either from a financial or sporting standpoint - to pass up a $4 million race when Perfect Drift already has defeated the colt who would be his main rival.

Johnson's decision is not only unsporting. It seems utterly perverse.

Dynever is another colt sidestepping the big races in which he should be running. I am a bit prejudiced on this subject. I have thought since the spring that the 3-year-old is the most talented member of his generation, and I bet him at 30-1 to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. His record has been blemished by a couple of dismal efforts on sloppy tracks, but his best Beyer Speed Figure is only a couple of lengths slower than Mineshaft's best.

He should have had his chance Saturday to prove that he belongs with the sport's elite; the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Gold Cup should be optimal for him, and Belmont is his home track. But trainer Christophe Clement will not enter him. His reason: "It's a good group of horses." Well, no kidding.

Isn't that what the game is supposed to be about: running good horses against other good horses?

Other leading horses are avoiding the Breeders' Cup for more understandable reasons. Funny Cide, the hero of the Triple Crown series, will be aiming for lesser objectives; trainer Barclay Tagg has nominated him to the Oct. 4 Indiana Derby, among other races. No less an authority than Tony Kornheiser criticized these plans, on his ESPN radio show, saying that a horse such as Funny Cide is supposed to be running in championship races. But Funny Cide hasn't run well since the Preakness, and Tagg would be imprudent to push him too hard to get to the Breeders' Cup.

Azeri, the defending Horse of the Year, will almost certainly not challenge males in the Classic or any other race. Trainer Laura de Seroux wants to keep Azeri's winning streak alive - she should extend it to 12 races at Santa Anita this weekend - and she is unlikely to subject the mare to any unnecessarily difficult situations. If all the leading males falter, maybe Azeri could back into another Horse of the Year title.

Too many of the sport's champions in recent years have won their titles in this way: by default. Mineshaft is an admirable throwback - a horse pursuing the sport's top honors by running in the big races and winning them.

(c) 2003 The Washington Post