11/21/2003 12:00AM

Last big blast before winter

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Medaglia d'Oro, shown winning the Whitney on Aug. 2, will start at Churchill on Friday in the Grade 2 Clark Handicap, one of several major races next weekend.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - After next weekend, racing fans can start looking forward to the winter holidays. The last batch of major U.S. racing events this year will be run over the long Thanksgiving weekend, but after that - until the Santa Anita and Gulfstream meets begin several weeks later - the cupboard gets pretty bare.

The blockbuster weekend will take place on several fronts. The four-month Fair Grounds meet gets off to its traditional start on Thanksgiving Day. Aqueduct is centering several important stakes around the Cigar Mile, the final Grade 1 race of the year in New York. Hollywood Park is holding its annual Turf Festival, a six-race, $1.85 million series spread over three days. And Churchill Downs is closing its fall meet with a flourish by offering four major races, starting with the Grade 2 Falls City Handicap on Thursday and the Grade 2 Clark Handicap on Friday.

While the action at each of those tracks will appeal to fans by varying degrees, perhaps it is the Churchill races that will draw the most notice. Jockey Jerry Bailey and trainer Bobby Frankel, who have been the most dominant players in their respective categories this year, are coming to Churchill with Sightseek and Medaglia d'Oro, two of the most high-profile horses to have raced this year.

Sightseek, who figures as a solid favorite in a field of about nine fillies and mares expected for the $300,000 Falls City, was easily the biggest disappointment in the Breeders' Cup on Oct. 25. Frankel said the filly's sluggish fourth-place finish in the BC Distaff was attributable to an internal bleeding incident and an illness borne out by postrace blood tests.

"That's the first time she's ever bled on me," Frankel said this week from California. "Then her blood [tests] came back bad. She's a lot better now, though. She'll be fine."

As if to prove that she has recovered, Sightseek, a 4-year-old filly owned by Juddmonte Farms, already has worked twice at Hollywood Park since the Breeders' Cup and was scheduled to have a final blowout Saturday.

Depending on how Sightseek fares, the 1 1/8-mile Falls City could prove highly pivotal in regard to the Eclipse voting for top filly and mare of 2003. Another loss surely would eliminate Sightseek from contention and give the championship to Azeri, but an authoritative victory on Thursday might convince voters to forgive Sightseek's clunker in the Distaff and give her the title. She is coming to Churchill only because of her Distaff defeat, for a BC victory most likely would have clinched the Eclipse, and a subsequent run in the Falls City would have put the title at unnecessary risk.

As for Medaglia d'Oro, Frankel had scheduled a Saturday workout at Hollywood for the 4-year-old colt, whose 2003 has been highly profitable if not overly flashy. After reeling off wins in the Feb. 1 Strub Stakes, the April 5 Oaklawn Handicap, and the Aug. 2 Whitney Handicap, Medaglia d'Oro finished second in the Aug. 24 Pacific Classic and the Breeders' Cup Classic last month. His 2003 earnings are just $10,000 short of $2 million.

"He's only had the five races, so it's been an easy year," Frankel said. "He had that time off between Oaklawn and the Whitney, so he's still pretty fresh."

Unlike in the case of Sightseek, there does not seem to be any chance that Medaglia d'Oro can earn a divisional championship by running a big race in the $500,000 Clark, since the Eclipse for older handicap horse appears certain to go to Mineshaft. Nonetheless, Frankel, who won the Clark last year with Lido Palace, has been looking forward for quite some time to running Medaglia d'Oro in the 1 1/8-mile race, which is expected to draw as many as 11 or 12 starters.

"The money's good there in Kentucky, and I actually need to run the horse somewhere," said Frankel. "He's doing so good, I almost have to run him. There's really not a lot for him after this race, so this is a good spot to end his year."

Frankel and owner Edmund Gann already are thinking ahead to a 5-year-old campaign for Medaglia d'Oro. The first major goal is the Dubai World Cup in late March.

"I'll probably keep him in light training after this," said Frankel, who will be at Churchill for the Clark but has "other plans" for Thanksgiving Day. "I'd like to run him once before we go to Dubai."

Clearly, the racing action at Churchill will be hot next weekend, although the weather may not be. After weeks of spectacular weather in the Louisville area, forecasters were calling for a major cold front to move in Sunday night. Like all the frenetic racing action on Thanksgiving weekend, that dramatic change in the weather is a sure sign that the winter holidays aren't far away.