10/23/2003 12:00AM

Looks like winner take all

Breeders' Cup XX

ARCADIA, Calif. - When the California Aqueduct was extended south to Los Angeles, the driving force behind the project, William Mulholland, turned the final valve, sending fresh water cascading down an incline toward the parched San Fernando Valley. Beholding an engineering marvel that would turn a desert oasis into a thriving metropolis, Mulholland waved his hand toward the minions gathered below and pronounced, "There it is, take it."

A century later, Mulholland's words ring true anew at this year's Breeders' Cup. Horse of the Year is for the taking.

Medaglia d'Oro and Perfect Drift seem the likeliest candidates to secure Horse of the Year, should they prevail in Saturday's $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting. Both are racing against the aura of Mineshaft, who is generally considered the leading candidate. Mineshaft, however, was retired three weeks ago with an ankle chip, not long after his connections initially expressed reservations about coming to Santa Anita for the Breeders' Cup. He is the leader in the clubhouse, but play is still under way.

The 1 1/4-mile Classic is the highlight of the $14 million World Thoroughbred Championships, being held for the 20th time. It is a hot ticket. And we mean hot. Afternoon temperatures at Santa Anita have topped 90 degrees all week, and the National Weather Service is forecasting a high of 89 degrees for Saturday. If the soaring San Gabriel Mountains were replaced by Ayers Rock, you would swear you were in the Outback. G'day. It is a marked contrast from last year's chilly weather at Arlington Park.

The heat should be mitigated somewhat by the early start. First post time at Santa Anita is 9:40 a.m. Pacific, with the first of the eight Breeders' Cup races, the Distaff, scheduled for 10:20 a.m. The Classic, the final Breeders' Cup race, is scheduled for 2:35 p.m. Three races will follow for a marathon, 12-race card.

The final six Breeders' Cup races, beginning with the Mile, make up a pick six that has a guaranteed pool of $3 million. There also is head-to-head wagering on every Breeders' Cup race.

The path to this year's Breeders' Cup has been about as winding as the boulevard named for Mulholland that cuts across the Santa Monica Mountains, from Hollywood to Malibu. The Triple Crown saw an unlikely hero emerge in the New York-bred gelding Funny Cide, but he could not complete the sweep. Mineshaft was one of several Eastern-based horses who could not, or whose connections would not, ship to California, including several prominent 2-year-old colts. And then earlier this week, the reigning Horse of the Year, Azeri, suffered a tendon injury that will likely lead to her retirement.

Still here, though, are an elite group of horses from both North America and Europe, including Europe's top sprinter, Oasis Dream, who is stretching out in the Mile; the continent's best mare, Islington, who is running in the Filly and Mare Turf; and its best distance horse, Falbrav, who meets Storming Home and Sulamani in an outstanding edition of the Turf.

The day's shortest-priced favorite might be Halfbridled in the Juvenile Fillies, but she must overcome the outside post in a field of 14. Julie Krone, who rides Halfbridled, is seeking to become the first female jockey to win a Breeders' Cup race.

The first seven races will serve as a warm-up, though, for the day's most important and richest race, the Classic. It has a star-studded cast, including Funny Cide, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, and Volponi, who was an upset winner of the Classic one year ago. Several championships are at stake in that one race, including Horse of the Year, champion older horse, and champion 3-year-old.

Perfect Drift, a 4-year-old gelding, has the best chance of ascending to the top of the leader board, since he has won all four of his main-track races this year, including an upset win over Mineshaft in the Stephen Foster Handicap. Perfect Drift arrived in California on Thursday after a flight from Kentucky.

"He's showing now what we always knew he could do," said his trainer, Murray Johnson.

Perfect Drift figures to get a good trip just behind an expected lively pace that should be carved out by Congaree and Medaglia d'Oro.

"He's got a high cruising speed, and he's learned to relax," Johnson said. "There should be some speed, which should suit us."

Medaglia d'Oro has won 3 times in 4 starts this year, his lone loss coming when Candy Ride turned in a freakishly dazzling performance in Del Mar's Pacific Classic. Medaglia d'Oro was coming back on three weeks' rest that day, had shipped in from Saratoga, and after the race had a pus pocket bust out of a foot, according to trainer Bobby Frankel. Medaglia d'Oro comes into this race off a nine-week layoff, a move that usually pays dividends for Frankel.

"Most horses run well fresh if you do it properly," Frankel said. "I think I've got him fit."

Ten Most Wanted is seeking to blow past Funny Cide and Empire Maker and claim the 3-year-old title by adding a victory against older horses in the Classic to prior wins in the Travers Stakes and Super Derby. His jockey, Pat Day, chose to ride Ten Most Wanted over Perfect Drift. Because he is a 3-year-old, Ten Most Wanted carries five pounds fewer (126-121) than his older rivals.

Volponi is winless this year, but proved in last year's Classic he is capable of beating the best on his day. He was second to Medaglia d'Oro in Saratoga's Whitney Handicap in August.

Funny Cide is making his first start against older horses, his first start since Aug. 3, and only his second start since losing the Belmont Stakes. It is a tall order.

Congaree has the home-court advantage. He has won four times in five starts, and just missed going 1 1/4 miles here earlier this year in the Santa Anita Handicap.

Pleasantly Perfect returned from a seven-month layoff to win the Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap at Santa Anita three weeks ago. He was well back of Congaree in two stakes here earlier this year.

Hold That Tiger was a distant second to Mineshaft in the Woodward Stakes last time out. He was third, after a disastrous start, in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Dynever, a 3-year-old, has yet to beat horses of this quality. He was second in the Meadowlands Breeders' Cup last time out.

Evening Attire's deep-closing style seems better suited to a track such as Saratoga or Aqueduct, but he could clunk up for a share.