07/12/2002 12:00AM

Gold Cup shines over years


MIAMI - When Leandro Mora was asked a question about Sky Jack the other day, he preceded his answer with a grin that reflected the bright Florida sun.

"He's doing reeeeeeally good," Mora said, only he used a few more e's.

Mora was on the road for his boss, Doug O'Neill, tending to business with Affirm Cat for Saturday's $250,000 Carry Back, part of Calder's $1.4 million Summit of Speed.

It is safe to say, however, that Mora was a little more than anxious to get back home for Sunday's $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup, in which Sky Jack will be facing Milwaukee Brew and Momentum for bragging rights as best older horse in the West - at least until Mizzen Mast returns.

Mora is not the only wandering Californian who will be catching the first plane out. The Gold Cup is a race of such rich history that its mere renewal is reason enough to pay attention. And even though this year's Gold Cup may fall short of past quality fields, it is representative of the widely strewn talent among older horses, and the conflicting mass of races that vie for their attention.

The 2002 Gold Cup has basically drawn the Santa Anita Handicap winner, plus three other horses who have won good stakes over the course. If nothing else, it should be competitive.

It pales, however, when compared to the field that gathered for the Hollywood Gold Cup a quarter of a century ago. At $350,000, it was the richest race run in North America that year. The runners included two past winners, Ancient Title and Pay Tribute, plus the outstanding grass horses Caucasus and Balmerino, as well as the top mare in the West, Cascapedia.

The star of the show, though, was Crystal Water. He was a near-black son of Windy Sands who had already won the Santa Anita Handicap and the Californian that year. So has Milwaukee Brew this year, but any similarities end right there. Crystal Water had done enough at ages 3 and 4 to earn a Gold Cup weight of 129 pounds. The reaction from trainer Roger Clapp was classic:

"I'd have to say 129 is about right."

Clapp's greatest worry was the 13 pounds he had to give Cascapedia, and he was right. The mare made it close, losing to Crystal Water by just a neck, while Caucasus closed best of all to miss second by only a nose.

Crystal Water was a product of the Three Rings Ranch of Connie Ring, whose Beaumont, Calif., farm produced some of the best West Coast runners of the late 1960's and 1970's. Richard Mandella, who will try to win his third Gold Cup on Sunday, with Out of Mind, broke yearlings as a teenager at Three Rings. Among the horses he handled was Soft Snow, the dam of Crystal Water. Their success was no mystery to him.

"They had a very healthy program, with a good feeding program, on a good, healthy piece of land that had a natural lake underneath it, where they got all their water," Mandella recalled.

Mandella and another young hand, Mark Selby, broke 50 yearlings each fall for Three Rings and another 50 for such clients as Charlie Whittingham, who won the Gold Cup eight times, and Buster Millerick, who won three in a row with Native Diver.

"I got $2 a head, and never had any complaints," Mandella said. "Really, the job was pretty simple."

Simple, yes, but only if you know what you're doing. The preparation of a yearling Thoroughbred for eventual handling as a racehorse can stamp the youngster for life. Talent can be squandered because of shoddy breaking, and poorly schooled young horse can make a trainer's life a wreck.

Occasionally, a trainer will let his horse down. Sky Jack has only one serious blemish on his record of 13 races - when he was eased home last in the 2002 Santa Anita Handicap - and Doug O'Neill still blames himself for running his horse too soon after a tough comeback effort.

"Thank goodness he ran so well in the Mervyn LeRoy," O'Neill said, referring to Sky Jack's 5 1/2-length score at Hollywood in May. "If he hadn't performed well that day, then I would have really felt terrible."

Sky Jack races for his breeders, Rene and Margie Lambert, who raise their horses near the inland Southern California town of Hemet, not unlike the Beaumont of Crystal Water's day. If Sky Jack can win the Gold Cup, he would join Crystal Water, Native Diver, and Ancient Title on a list of Cal-bred winners that also includes Cover Up, Solidarity, Correspondent, Swaps, Prove It, Eleven Stitches, Super Diamond and, most recently, Best Pal in 1993.

"I don't like to get too high on a horse going into a race," O'Neill said. "There's too many things that could happen. But this is my first Gold Cup, and I'll admit I'm excited. I've run a few horses in Grade 1 races before, but this is the first time I'll go into one thinking, yes, we could really win."