10/22/2008 12:00AM

Gosden returns for a crack at Classic

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ARCADIA, Calif. - John Gosden was going to be the next Charlie Whittingham. You in the back, knock off the hair jokes. Yes, Gosden's tresses were on the retreat by the time he left California, in 1988. But his star was very much on the rise, sparked by the Breeders' Cup Mile victory of Royal Heroine in 1984, and his stable was beginning to resemble nothing less than a budding microcosm of the institution located down the road, trained by that bald ex-Marine.

Then he left, packing up his young family and heading back to his native England to set up shop at Newmarket. Gosden promised to come back for a visit, but you know how that goes. Californians figured the young Brit would never be heard from again.

Apparently, though, he did okay. He seemed to get regular employment, from patrons like Sheikh Mohammed and Robert Sangster, and he was quoted often, since the British racing press appreciates complete sentences and the occasional dash of dry humor.

The Gosden family Christmas card arrived in 1997 bearing the image of his Epsom Derby winner Benny the Dip - who knew? - and there were rumors that he was winning other good races, too, like the St Leger, a Guineas, and the Coronation, with some regularity.

As it turned out, there have been few horsemen able to embrace the racing world with such an ecumenical point of view. Having done California at the highest level, Gosden, 57, knows what American horsemen face in terms of cramped training grounds, decrepit stabling facilities, and the pressures of permitted medications, while enjoying ripe purses. As a respected member of the British establishment, he can testify to the benefit of private yards and fallow winters, even though the trade-off is smaller purses and limited opportunities to run.

Gosden is back at Santa Anita this week, attempting to win the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic with Raven's Pass. At a mile and a quarter on the main track, the Classic was the kind of race Whittingham could win in his sleep (although Charlie was wide awake and celebrating hard after Ferdinand won it in 1987). Gosden tried the Classic once before, with fifth-place Alphabatim at Santa Anita in 1986, but he's had nothing since, and for good reason. Since returning to his native isle, Gosden has not been inclined to subject any of his classically oriented turf runners to the vagaries of American dirt.

"A synthetic track offers a level playing field," Gosden said, in reference to Santa Anita's new Pro-Ride. "If this was run at Churchill Downs, Raven's Pass would not be in the Classic. This way, you bring the best from all over the world to meet. You're not going to find a turf champion or a dirt champion. You're going to find a champion."

A son of Elusive Quality, Raven's Pass is American-bred through and through. The female family traces to the blood of Elmendorf Farm, while the sire, though a miler, managed to give us Smarty Jones. His damsire is Lord at War, a fast Argentinean trained by Whittingham to win the 1985 Santa Anita Handicap at 10 furlongs. Gosden picked the yearling version of Raven's Pass out of a field of Stonerside Farm babies and bought him on behalf of Sheikh Mohammed's wife, Princess Haya of Jordan.

It will be obvious to gamblers on Saturday that Raven's Pass has never raced beyond a mile. Such animals do not win the Breeders' Cup Classic, although Gosden was quick to make a case.

"He'll stay a mile and an eighth," the trainer said. "If you've ever walked the old mile at Ascot, you just climb and climb and climb, and he did that mile comfortably," in winning the Queen Elizabeth II on Sept. 27. "The last eighth of a mile, I can't tell you about. You can't rehearse that kind of thing at home. You can only do it in a race."

Of more concern to Gosden was the way Raven's Pass acted Wednesday in his first tour of the course.

"I went out on the pony with him this morning and then I led him around the barn," Gosden said. "Actually, he was leading me. Very full of himself. It's lovely when they come here like that. You can always come here sometimes as an afterthought, when a horse is very tired. The preparation in our spring is very tough on horses because of the climate, especially hard on their respiratory system, and they haven't come into their coat. So he's been through that, and through a hard summer of racing. But he's coming out a better horse at the end of it, which is a great test of constitution."

As he spoke, outside the Breeders' Cup quarantine stables, Gosden was barely a stone's throw from his first barn as a rookie Santa Anita trainer in 1979. It was a far cry from his days learning the trade from Noel Murless and Vincent O'Brien, not to mention his father, Jack "Towser" Gosden, who died in 1967.

"I had three stalls there at the back of Willard Proctor's barn," Gosden recalled, summoning the name of the toughest Texan who ever trained a racehorse. "He used to stand in front of them, lean over and spit. I thought, 'Aw, Willard.' "

It wasn't long, though, before Gosden earned the respect of local skeptics, including Whittingham himself. More than anything from his California days, Gosden misses their friendship, and friendly rivalry.

"It was the Monday morning after I'd won the Santa Anita Handicap with Bates Motel, with Charlie's horses back in the pack," Gosden said. "Charlie always got to the gate at the main track chute first, but that day I beat him by five minutes. Just as I was about to unhook the latch, I felt a cold hand on the back of my neck, and Charlie's voice in my ear.

" 'Well done, lad,' he said. 'But remember - the pole's slippery.' "