11/04/2010 12:28PM

Goldikova looking like a breed apart in Breeders' Cup Mile

Barbara D. Livingston
Goldikova is back in the United States for a bid at an unprecedented third BC Mile victory.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Three times, Goldikova has flown across the Atlantic Ocean from France to the United States. Twice she has gone home a Breeders' Cup Mile winner. If it happens again this year - and this will almost certainly be Goldikova's last trip overseas - the mighty miler housed in a modest, plain-bay body will make history.

No one ever has won three Breeders' Cup races, much less three in a row. Two horses have a chance at Churchill Downs on Saturday, but even if both were to win, Goldikova would mark the record books first, since the Breeders' Cup Mile comes a couple of hours before Zenyatta tries for her third consecutive Breeders' Cup win, and second in the Classic.

Goldikova, now 5, has aged wonderfully, and she looks better her third time in the United States than her first. The 5-year-old mare still has her old habit of lunging and biting in her stall.

"That's her place, and she doesn't like other people to come in," trainer Freddie Head said. But Goldikova, still no beauty queen, and far from a towering specimen like Zenyatta, has more heft and strength than when she was here at 3. And according to her trainer, she really likes coming to America.

"She loves being out on the track like that and seeing a lot of horses," said Head. "I suppose she gets a little bored back home, going in the alleys and through the woods."
Travel is only part of the battle as Goldikova traverses new Breeders' Cup territory. Fifty horses have made three or more Breeders' Cup starts, but only 11 are two-time winners, and until this season, only one other horse even had the opportunity to capture the same Breeders' Cup race three years in a row. That was Lure, who finished ninth as the odds-on favorite in the Breeders' Cup Mile right here at Churchill in 1994.

"He'd had a good year, but not as good as the year before," trainer Shug McGaughey recalled this week. "When we came back from Saratoga he had a quarter crack, and I was fighting that the whole time. When we got to Louisville, we could train him, but we had to pull his shoe off and then put it back on. We thought we could overcome it, but in hindsight, it was too much."

In fact, a wide range of horses have held down form strong enough to merit a spot in Breeders' Cup races year after year. The blocky Kona Gold, a stone-cold sprinter, made five Breeders' Cup appearances, winning in his third try. Equaling Kona Gold's record number of BC starts were greyhound-shaped long-distance turfer Better Talk Now, who won as a 5-year-old and kept coming back for more until the ripe age of 9, and Perfect Drift, who finished between third and 12th in the course of five Classic starts during the early to middle aughts.

"Of course it is an accomplishment, but I don't think it's such a big deal as people make it out to be," Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard said of the longevity factor that has lent an added layer of star power to Goldikova this season. "A good horse is a good horse, and there's no reason why they couldn't put three years together, I don't think. The reason it doesn't happen more is they either get hurt, or the fillies get packed off to stud."

Sheppard himself, of course, has trained any number of horses both on the flat and over jumps who were capable of winning graded stakes well into middle years. This year, however, he has seen two champions in his stable, Informed Decision and Forever Together, struggle to reach the level they had attained the last two seasons.
"It is true that they have not maintained their very best form, but if they have lost a step, it's not much of one," said Sheppard, "and I think there have been other circumstances conspiring."

The devil can lie in those conspiring circumstances. Goldikova was able to overcome a wide draw and a surprisingly large mid-race deficit to win her second Mile in 2009. A whole new set of challenges awaits this year.

"You've got the traveling factor, and the weather that can affect them," McGaughey said. "Goldikova, she's making her third trip over here from Europe, and she's had a campaign over there, too. There are so many variables that go into it. She's a very, very good horse, but she won both of hers at Santa Anita on a turf course totally different than this."

Here's another thing: The International Federation of Horseracing Authorities doesn't believe the Goldikova of 2010 is as good as Goldikova circa 2009. That body pegged Goldikova at 130 on their World Thoroughbred Rankings scale last year, making her the organization's second-highest rated horse behind Sea the Stars. This year, Goldikova has topped out at 124, tied for 12th best.

Some might quarrel with those rankings - one of them being Freddie Head, who also believes that Goldikova's three-year stay at the top of the turf miler heap is something unusual.

"It's very special to stay in such a good form for so long," Head said. "She hasn't been over-raced. She's run only 20 times, which is not too much. I think she's so good that she keeps always something in her sleeves and she doesn't' give them the maximum. I think that's why she can last."

Head contrasted Goldikova with Miesque, who herself won the Mile two years in a row with Head as her jockey, scoring the second of her BC victories at Churchill. "Miesque only ran up to 4," he said. "She only had three seasons."

Goldikova is at the end of season four, having won both her 2007 starts at age 2. At 3, in 2008, Goldikova actually lost her first three races, outshone by the only horse to have proven her superior on the racetrack, Zarkava, who would win the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe later in the year.

"I think she's a much better mare now than she was when we met Zarkava," Head said. "She was more backward at 3 than Zarkava."

And the second half of Goldikova's 2008 turned out fine, a three-race Group 1 winning streak capped by her first BC Mile victory. Last year, after a troubling seventh-place finish to start her season, Goldikova won 4 of 6, and she has captured 4 of her 5 races in 2010, her lone loss coming over a soft, testing course at Deauville in August.
Still, that presumed chink in Goldikova's armor - wet turf - seems minimal. The course at Longchamp last month was called "soft" when Goldikova won the Group 1 Prix de la Foret by a half-length over Paco Boy, who will try her again Saturday.

"We always thought she was a better horse on a firmer surface," said Head. "That's why I think her last run was very special. She showed the soft ground didn't stop her."
In the Santa Anita interview room after the 2008 Mile, Head appeared genuinely delighted when Goldikova's owners, brothers Alain and Gerard Wertheimer, announced she would remain in training for 2009, and Head received a second bonus when Goldikova came back for another season in 2010. Apparently, Saturday's race will bring down the curtain on a career that has so far produced 11 Group 1 wins and purse earnings of more than $5 million.

"For the moment she's not" racing in 2011, Head said. "But you never know. We'll see afterward."

Goldikova, from what Head has to say, hardly indicates she wants a change of profession.

"When she works at home, she's still the same," he said. "No matter what horse we put her with, she wins her gallops by 10 lengths, by daylight. She's kept that freshness that horses start to lose with age, when they get more lazy. All she wants is to run."