11/03/2011 10:51AM

Hovdey: Breeders' Cup training tales to be savored

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Barbara D. Livingston
A fourth straight victory by Goldikova in the Breeders’ Cup Mile could steal the show on Saturday.

If Uncle Mo wins the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Saturday it will be:

1. The greatest training feat in the history of the Breeders’ Cup.

2. The greatest training feat in the history of mankind.

3. The second-greatest training feat on Saturday afternoon.

Hats off to Todd Pletcher if he can take Uncle Mo from the depths of his liver disease earlier this year to the heights of a Classic victory off two races since August. Certainly, such a resurrection will rank with the most memorable training achievements in Breeders’ Cup history. But since there have been 224 horses finish first in Breeders’ Cup events – counting one dead-heat and one DQ – the field is pretty crowded already.

This reporter has his own list of favorites, beginning with Ross Fenstermaker’s retooling of Precisionist in 1985, when he stopped on the big chestnut after his second to Greinton in the 1 1/4-mile Hollywood Gold Cup and brought him back 132 days later to win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Aqueduct.

Fenstermaker, a horseman’s horseman, usually deflects compliments with an “aw shucks,” allowing that asking Precisionist to run a fast six furlongs off a layoff was a lot easier than guiding the 6-year-old Susan’s Girl to a championship in 1975, which he also did. And he had a point. Precisionist hit the three-quarters in 1:08.60 on his way to beating Greinton in the one-mile Mervyn LeRoy Handicap that same spring and needed only 1:08.40 to turn back Smile in the BC Sprint.

Still, for those of us who had followed Precisionist’s every move since his 1983 debut, the Sprint was a rockin’ good show, just as the hard-core fans of Michael Dickinson swooned – and cashed – when the Yorkshireman brought 1996 Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Da Hoss up to the 1998 Mile after a 105-week layoff and one easy little race.

The second Da Hoss Mile tops many lists of Breeders’ Cup training feats. It was not, however, Dickinson’s best. That day occurred in 1983 when he saddled the first five finishers in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the most prestigious jump race in the British Isles. Look it up.

In terms of Classic lore, a victory by Uncle Mo would guarantee Pletcher is mentioned in the same breath as John Veitch – who worked wonders bringing John Galbreath’s Florida Derby winner Proud Truth back to peak form after recovering from a cannon bone fracture and winning the Discovery Handicap one week before his score at Aqueduct – or Jay Robbins, who missed the middle of the 2001 season with defending Classic champ Tiznow because of an inflamed lumbar vertabra and still had him ready to beat Arc de Triomphe winner Sakhee in the big one at Belmont Park.

Yet, by the time Uncle Mo takes to the track for the Classic, the best training job of the Cup might already be in the books. If Freddy Head can win a fourth straight Breeders’ Cup Mile with Goldikova, Pletcher could ride Uncle Mo sidesaddle down Louisville’s busy Broadway and still the day would belong to the mare.

How tough is it to keep a good horse going that long at that level? Let’s ask someone who might know.

“It’s my impression, as a trainer, that Freddy resisted the temptation to prove something with Goldikova and just went with what she had to offer,” said John Shirreffs, who will be running the 3-year-old Mr. Commons against Goldikova. “He knew his horse so well and had so much faith in her that he let her determine everything.”

Shirreffs could have been talking about his own handling of Zenyatta over a career that spanned three championship seasons and culminated at Churchill Downs last year with her narrow loss to Blame in the Classic, her only defeat in 20 starts. Goldikova, who has competed against males in 15 of her 26 starts, has raced beyond a mile only four times, winning twice.

“Uncle Mo is being asked to do something he’s never done before, which is different to what Goldikova is being asked,” Shirreffs noted. “The challenge for Freddy has been, how do you keep her focused? How do you keep her interest in doing what she already done before?”

With only a restricted stakes win to his name and second-place finishes in the Del Mar and Oak Tree Miles, Mr. Commons comes into the Breeders’ Cup dramatically beneath the radar measuring Zenyatta last year and Goldikova this time around.

“Oh yeah, it’s very different,” Shirreffs said. “The thing about last year, though, it was a celebration. Bringing Zenyatta to the Breeders’ Cup and letting all the fans enjoy her was very special to all of us close to her.”

And then she lost, which could just as easily happen on Saturday when Goldikova must face the likes of Gio Ponti, Turallure, and Courageous Cat from America, as well as the capable Europeans Strong Suit and Byword. Does Shirreffs have a strategy to dethrone the queen?

“You know, I just hope she runs her race,” Shirreffs replied. “I would love for Mr. Commons to win. But I would be equally happy for Goldikova to win.”

That echo comes from a year ago, when Zenyatta’s opponents were saying the same thing. Shirreffs summoned one of the many memories from that bittersweet afternoon, when Zenyatta was going for a second straight Classic and third straight win in a Breeders‘ Cup event.

“We were getting ready to come over,” Shirreffs said. “Word got to me that after Goldikova won, Freddy said, ‘Okay Zenyatta, go out and win your race, because we are rooting for you.’ How special is that?”

Shirreffs answered his own question:

“It’s the feeling you want from being in horse racing.”