11/04/2009 1:00AM

Godolphin's own Murderer's Row


ARCADIA, Calif. - It was late Sunday afternoon on the Santa Anita backstretch when both Pyro and Cocoa Beach were led out of their Godolphin stalls to trot along the stable road for the pleasure of a Breeders' Cup veterinarian. This was routine, since both horses had worked that morning, and the scene was quiet, lazy, and warm.

Still, neither assistant trainer Rick Mettee nor his right-hand man Henry Spiller were taking anything for granted. They were on the watch, like Secret Service agents scanning the crowd, as Pyro began his little inspection trot, off toward the grandstand.

It was not clear who saw them first, Pyro or Mettee, but it was the Godolphin assistant trainer who called out, "There they are, right on cue. It's the ponies. Let's get him back in the barn."

The inspection was over, or at least postponed, by the Felliniesque arrival of four Shetland ponies and their handlers, heading for a trailer parked only yards from the Godolphin barn. The sight of them caused Pyro to snort and toss his head.

"Every Saturday and Sunday, they're here for kids to ride in the infield," Mettee said. "I'm not sure why a Thoroughbred reacts to them the way they do, but they don't seem to look at the little ones the way we would look at a child."

Pyro made a name for himself beating full-sized horses in the Louisiana Derby for his breeder and former owner, Ron Winchell. For Godolphin, the colt won the Forego at Saratoga and runs in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile on Saturday, while Cocoa Beach will get a chance Friday to improve upon her second-place finish in the 2008 Ladies' Classic. The absence of defending champ Zenyatta will help.

Pyro and Cocoa Beach are two of Godolphin's U.S.-based starting nine that would make the Yankees blush. They have been mingling with the general Santa Anita population for the last few weeks, preparing for a crack at five different main-track Breeders' Cup events.

In the meantime, Godolphin's foreign delegation arrived Sunday evening from England and was sequestered in the quarantine facilities, which is just as well. The claustrophobic Santa Anita backstretch can be a shock for horses more accustomed to the spacious swards of Newmarket or the private domain at Al Quoz. In the meantime, the Godolphins with Mettee - head trainer Saeed bin Suroor arrives after Tuesday's Melbourne Cup -have been sharing a shed row with Sandy Shulman and a walking ring with David Bernstein, trainers familiar enough to California fans but without a trace of Breeders' Cup history.

Mettee, 51, is a Maryland native who was present at the first Breeders' Cup in 1984 at Hollywood Park while working for John Gosden. He vividly recalls Royal Heroine's raw foot after their filly sloughed a frog the day before the inaugural Mile, which would have meant end of story for a lesser animal. She won anyway, in 1:32.60.

"How tough was she?" Mettee said. "That same year I was watching from down by the winner's circle here when she fell in the Santa Ana Handicap. She came back and beat colts twice that summer, ran second to John Henry in the Million, and ended the year beating Sabin in the Matriarch, after winning the Breeders' Cup."

Earlier, before the Shetlands appeared, Mettee worked his way stall by stall through the barn, like a currator pausing at Monets, Manets, and the odd Picasso. You would expect the cream of the Maktoum runners to be bedded in piles of the finest Egyptian cotton and fed from buckets of gold. But these were hard-working pros on the road, satisfied with their deep straw, generous hayracks and Godolphin blue "jolleyballs" dangling from the stall doors, for entertainment.

Aligned along the west side of the shed row were the colts: Pyro, Ancient Title winner Gayego (Sprint), 2008 BC Juvenile winner Midshipman (Dirt Mile), Super Derby winner Regal Ransom (Classic), and Jerome winner Girolamo (Classic). Facing them were the girls: the Ladies' Classic runners Cocoa Beach and Music Note, winners of the last two Beldames, and the Filly and Mare Sprint contenders Sara Louise, fresh from a sterling second to champion Indian Blessing, and Seventh Street, winner of the Apple Blossom and Go for Wand.

"All of them have either trained or raced on synthetics," Mettee noted, "either here, or in Dubai, or the Keeneland training track, or even the Greentree training track in Saratoga. It's been Sara Louise, Midshipman, and Gayego who really seems to bounce over this particular surface."

Mettee invited a visitor to enter the stall of Girolamo, a son of A.P. Indy who is being groomed for next year's World Cup in Dubai. The colt was tethered temporarily to the back wall, but he barely took notice. That was just as well. Until you've stood alongside a dark-coated creature of such obvious power in a 10-by-10 enclosure, appreciation for these warriors comes up short. Ponies you pet. Girolamos you experience.

"He's as docile as can be in his stall and nice out on the track," Mettee said. "His Achilles' heel, if you will, is getting the saddle on him in the paddock. We have to do it on the walk.

"He was kind of thrown off the deep end after breaking his maiden last year, running in the Futurity and the Champagne," Mettee added. "You could say the same thing this year, going in the Classic. He's shipping across country, running on synthetics for the first time, it's his first time around two turn and going a mile and a quarter. He's a pretty good horse, though."

One learns to decipher such lingo. Mettee, conservative by nature, uses the same careful vocabulary employed by guys like Charlie Whittingham and Allen Jerkens. A good horse would be Pretense or Beau Purple. A pretty good horse kicks it up to Ack Ack or Prove Out. Still, as the least experienced of a half-dozen 3-year-olds in the Classic, Girolamo will be a price. Music Note could be favored over the younger Careless Jewel in the Ladies' Classic, and Gayego will get strong Sprint support, even in the face of Zensational and Fatal Bullet.

However, it is the stark reality of the Breeders' Cup that even those associated with the world's deepest, sheikh-funded racing stable approach the event beset with uncertainty. At this level, a shutout for Godolphin is both unthinkable and possible.

"I guess we'd better win something," Mettee concluded.