10/23/2002 11:00PM

At long last, Cup stops here

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Move over Belmont. Take a number, Churchill Downs. The big day has wandered north of the 38th parallel once again, at a time when grizzlies start looking for winter caves. Only this time the stage belongs to that toddlin' town, my kind of town, city of the big shoulders, hog butcher to the world.

Da Bears.

Da Bulls.

Da Breeders' Cup.

So add another layer, dig out the gloves, and lean into the wind. It's Ditka weather in Chicago, very bitter and very sweet, and horse racing's greatest event has finally arrived. Let's just hope the 19th Breeders' Cup can live up to the city.

Chicago did not need the Breeders' Cup. What's another world-class doodad when you've already got Wrigley Field, Grant Park, the Field Museum, Navy Pier, and gentrified neighborhoods to die for?

Who needs more history when it already spills from every building, every corner, from Hemingway's crib to Haymarket Square to the earliest works of Frank Lloyd Wright?

Remember, movie fans, Chicago is the home of the Blues Brothers, Ferris Bueller, Eliot Ness, and that kid they left home all by himself. Twice. Five hours of televised Breeders' Cup won't exactly bump that lore.

But the Breeders' Cup needed to be in Chicago eventually, if only to pay homage to the bedrock roots of the game. For more than 60 years, the finest threads of Thoroughbred racing have led to Arlington Park and its sister tracks. Gallant Fox, Equipoise, Citation, Dr. Fager, Secretariat, John Henry, and Cigar - the lineage has continued through fire, war, and political strife.

Whether or not this particular Breeders' Cup will produce lasting memories remains to be seen. Of all the favored few, Azeri has the best chance to leave town as a transcendent star, giving the game a marquee name to run with down the line. (She is already the inspiration for a grammar school flag-football team back home in California, where the little voices shout "Azeri!" when they break the huddle). All Azeri needs to do is what she has done before. If she does, and the best of the males fail, she should be Horse of the Year.

In this corner at least, Azeri and her people get points for sticking around next year. Saturday will bring way too many farewells. Win or lose, say goodbye to War Emblem, Came Home, Hawk Wing, Rock of Gibraltar, High Chaparral, Banks Hill, and even Xtra Heat, who will be sold at auction to some lucky collector of Thoroughbred DNA.

Late on Wednesday afternoon, in the cold stillness of Gene Cilio's Barn 10 shed row at Arlington, Paco Gonzalez plunged his hands deep into the pockets of his down jacket, and thought for a moment about life without Came Home.

"It's too bad," Gonzalez said. "I understand why they will retire him. But it's still too bad. As a 4-year-old, I know he would be even better. Stronger, more settled. Too bad."

Came Home could be Horse of the Year if he wins the Classic. Of course he could. And so could War Emblem, or Medaglia d'Oro, or even Rock of Gibraltar if he does a Miesque in the Mile and all the other things fall into place.

In the end, though, what will linger of the 2002 Breeders' Cup will not be determined on the track. For the first time in a long time, the Cup will be remembered for where it was, and why it didn't get here sooner.

Late on Wednesday, about the same time Gonzalez was preparing to feed a hungry Came Home, two men of relatively small physical stature stood at the top of Arlington's clubhouse terrace, just outside the cozy Paddock Pub. The seats were all but empty, but it was a familiar sight. Arlington's weekday programs have gone unattended for awhile now, a grand facility squandered by a game gone simulcast.

Bill Thayer and his boss, Dick Duchossois, have agonized long and hard over the decline in live gate. Duchossois built his dream track from the ashes of the 1985 Arlington fire. Thayer has added his half a century of racetrack savvy. There have been no answers, but at least there is a Breeders' Cup.

At that moment, however, they were more concerned with the scene in the mile chute, where the field for the seventh race was gathering in the gate. Duchossois had a runner named Apt to Be, and the pressure was on.

"He's on the duck," Thayer said, summoning the old racetrack slang. If you go 0-for the meet, congratulations. You get the duck.

"And he's running out of time," Thayer added. "The meet ends Sunday. I'd love to see him get this one."

Apt to Be came through, winning by daylight.

"How about that?" Duchossois said. "Finally got there."

No doubt about it. Big shoulders come in all sizes.