10/21/2008 11:00PM

Goldikova shares that Miesque touch


ARCADIA, Calif. - A little before 9 a.m. Tuesday, there appeared on Santa Anita's main track an essentially unremarkable bay filly of modest size wearing a plain blue saddle towel. Watching her jog from the track apron was a man in black sweater, jeans, and white sneakers who drew no special attention during the busy Breeders' Cup-week morning. But that little horse was the mighty miler Goldikova, and the elfin man was Freddie Head, the great French rider back at the Breeders' Cup for the first time as a trainer.

Goldikova left France for the first time in her racing career this weekend, flying to California to try and capture the Breeders' Cup Mile for her owners and breeders, the French brothers Alain and Gerard Wertheimer. Head has been in these parts before. It was at nearby Hollywood Park that he and Miesque won the first of their two straight BC Miles in 1987. The video is easily accessible online. You can see Head throw the reins twice at Miesque to get perfect inside position going into the first turn. He times her move perfectly in the stretch, and Miesque draws clear. The next year at Churchill, the running was entirely different, with Head having to utilize a wide, more sustained move. Miesque won by an even larger margin.

The obvious question: How does Goldikova, a winner of three straight one-mile stakes, and France's best miler this year, match up with Miesque?

"Miesque was something special," Head said, back at Santa Anita's quarantine barn, and now surrounded by media. "She was more seasoned than Goldikova is. Goldikova has not yet been as good as Miesque - but she could be. She has a lot of speed and pace, and she's a real miler. She's not as brutal as Miesque was. I think she's easier to ride."

Yes, Head still looks at horses from a jockey's perspective, and how could he not? Now 61, Head rode for 34 years, and won every group stakes race in France. He was champion rider there six times, and won Group 1 races right up until his retirement in 1997. His grandfather and father were jockeys; his father, Alec, became a champion trainer, and Head's sister, Criquette Head-Maarek, also trains at the highest level.

"He was one of the icons in France," said Brice Blanc, a native Frenchman who learned to ride in France, but has spent most of his career in California. "In France, there were two styles of riding, and he was one of the great old-school jockeys. He rode really short [with his stirrups]. Cash Asmussen, when he came over, he brought the newer style for kids like me."

When Head stopped riding, he followed his father's path, and took up training in Chantilly, but there is a reason American fans have not heard a lot about Freddie Head, the trainer. Top-class horses did not flock to his yard, and Head did not win his first Group 1 race until 2006, 10 years after he had switched professions. But quite suddenly, his training career has taken flight. His 2007 season looked like a major breakthrough until Head battered last year's record this season. Head-trained horses have won more than $4 million this year, fourth-best among French trainers, and his eight Group 1 victories rank second among European trainers only behind Aidan O'Brien.

"I don't know how it happened. It's luck, I guess," Head said, seeming truly enchanted by his good fortune. "I got all the horses at the same time. This year, I had the best [French] miler, the best sprinter [Marchand d'Or], the best 2-year-old [Naaqoos]. You have to wait, but when they're there, you don't want to spoil them."

Spoil them, he has not. Goldikova comes into the Mile less seasoned than Miesque because Head judged her too immature for a serious 2-year-old campaign, giving her just a pair of starts against modest company last fall.

"At 2, I felt she wasn't ready to take on the best ones," said Head. "Then at 3, she raced against a super, super horse in the Guineas."

That would be Zarkava, who beat Goldikova by two lengths in the French 2,000 Guineas, and by more than four in the French Oaks, and completed an undefeated career with a win in the Arc de Triomphe earlier this month. The French Oaks, at more than 1 1/4 miles, was farther than Goldikova's best while right in Zarkava's wheelhouse, and in the Guineas, a one-mile race where Goldikova might have had a chance, she stumbled badly at the start, and did well to finish second.

"I think she's a better filly now than then," Head said.

Goldikova has shown as much. She won a race she should have won, the Group 3 Prix Chloe, after the French Oaks, then scored sharp Group 1 victories over top-class Darjina in a pair of Group 1's. Her last victory over Darjina came in a field that included males, including Henrythenavigator. All of which makes her the one to beat on Saturday.

Goldikova might have lost a couple pounds shipping halfway around the world, but Head judged she would put the weight back on and improve through her week at Santa Anita. And with the year Head is having, the filly seems likely to bear out his judgment.

"Jockeys - that's the greatest business in the world," he said. "But when you train horses, that's rewarding, too. People say good jockeys can't make good trainers. I would like to prove them wrong."