09/08/2008 12:00AM

Invading forces


While I would not go so far to say that Big Brown or Curlin cannot win the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Oct. 25, it might be a good idea to shop around in Las Vegas for an alternative or two in future book betting pools.

Sure, most of the racing world would love to see Big Brown meet Curlin in this year’s Classic on that new Pro-Ride synthetic track that is getting very good early reviews during morning workouts. But, from what America’s top two horses have displayed in recent outings, I’m not so sure either colt will be able to handle Japanese-based Casino Drive or Europe’s Duke of Marmalade, should either actually ship the 6,000 miles.

Among other things, I did not like Curlin’s last furlong in 14.01 seconds in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 30. For another, I remain unconvinced that Big Brown is completely over his hoof problems, given that he drifted out as usual while winning the Haskell at Monmouth two months ago. Nor are his usually brash connections promoting confidence while they gingerly head on a path to the Classic.

Consider: Big Brown skipped an appearance in the Travers, skipped a possible meeting with Curlin in the Woodward, is skipping another possible race against that rival in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont on Sept. 27, and is not going to race in the $500,000 Goodwood at Santa Anita on the same day. Instead, Big Brown will race in a tailor-made, trumped-up $500,000 grass race at Monmouth Park on Saturday.

Now I ask you, is that the regimen of a supremely fit, talented racehorse, or is it an overly cautious game plan that could backfire if Big Brown does not look ready to reach his lifetime best during Breeders’ Cup week? Make no mistake, Big Brown will have to be at his lifetime best to win the Classic, even if Curlin is below top form or not in the field.

Casino Drive may have been forgotten by many after he was forced to scratch from the Belmont Stakes due to a very minor foot bruise. But after front-running Da’ Tara won such a weak renewal of the Belmont with Big Brown failing to contend, it is reasonable to believe that a healthy Casino Drive would have been a tough customer. Frankly, I thought Casino Drive’s thoroughly professional victory in the Peter Pan – in just his second career outing – was vivid testimony to his extreme high class.

Although no one in America knows exactly what Casino Drive has been doing in Japan for three months, we do know that his connections are coveting the BC Classic, and there is a chance he might show up in the Goodwood. On that day, by the way, five other Grade 1 stakes will be run at Santa Anita for BC contenders and there will be another Grade 1 and a Grade 2 race at that track on Sept. 28. Obviously we all will see exactly how the new synthetic track plays and which horses might have a significant home-court advantage.

The best Eastern-based horses and some Europeans will get five Grade 1’s at Belmont Park on Sept 27 to prep for various BC races, and there will be three more graded races on Sept 28. Turfway Park in Kentucky also has four graded stakes positioned as BC preps on the 27th, while Keeneland will have eight during its meet, including five Grade 1’s the following weekend.

All of these races must be watched of course for the kind of clues that pointed out Lahudood as an 11-1 winner in the BC Filly and Mare Turf after she improved to win the Flower Bowl at Belmont at odds of 21-1.

Curlin also foreshadowed his 2007 BC Classic victory with a hard-fought, highly rated victory over odds-on favorite Lawyer Ron in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Prior to his 119 Beyer Speed Figure in the BC Classic, Curlin’s 114 Beyer Speed Figure in the Gold Cup was a career top that confirmed the improvement many expected to see as he matured deep into a 3-year-old campaign.

Henrythenavigator, the number one turf miler in Europe until he was a lackluster fifth to the filly Goldikova on very soft ground in the Prix du Moulin at Longchamps on Sunday, was pointing for the Classic. But after that defeat Henrythenagivator now is more likely for the BC Mile. Meanwhile trainer Aidan O’Brien strongly hinted that he may send stablemate Duke of Marmalade to the Classic in solid form, with a win in the Juddmonte International Stakes at Newmarket last month.

Before we dismiss a foreign-based entry in the Classic against possibly Curlin or Big Brown, we should recall several excellent performances in our richest race by a handful of adventurous European contenders.

Ibn Bay was second to Unbridled in the 1990 Classic; Arcangues scored a stunning, historic upset in 1993; Swain was an unlucky third to Awesome Again in 1998 after failing to keep a straight course while seemingly on his way to victory; and Giant’s Causeway and Sakhee pushed two-time BC Classic winner Tiznow to the limit in successive 2000 and 2001 BC Classics.

This year, of course, the Classic will be run on a Pro-Ride synthetic track, and there is much evidence that good turf horses tend to handle synthetic tracks with minimum difficulty. For that reason alone, no one should be hasty to concede this year’s Classic to any American-based horse, not after the top two American horses have hinted at vulnerability and not while high-class Euros and the exciting Casino Drive may be in the mix.

At the very least, while nearly two dozen Grade 1 and Grade 2 stakes will be run in New York, Kentucky and California to prepare our top horses for Breeders’ Cup races, horseplayers should watch both Curlin and Big Brown’s performance in their next outing with a discerning eye, while keeping tabs on news and notes from Europe.

We already know that several internationally minded trainers are preparing their top horses for an aggressive assault in the expanded two-day Breeders' Cup extravaganza on turf and synthetic surfaces. Moreover, history dictates that some of these top horses will be extremely competitive and may be bargains in the futures and at the parimutuel windows.

* Steve Davidowitz will conduct a free handicapping seminar at Arlington Park on Saturday, Sept. 13, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., with Chicago Sun Times handicapper Scott McMannis. The seminar will be followed by a book signing for “Bet with the Best 2” and “The Best and Worst of Thoroughbred Racing.”