11/06/2009 12:00AM

Mastercraftsman has that late strength

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Barbara D. Livingston
Mastercraftsman, winner of four Group 1 races at a mile or shorter, would benefit from a hot pace on Saturday.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Had Rip Van Winkle been unable to make it to the Breeders' Cup Classic, few would have quibbled had his connections opted to run Mastercraftsman in the $5 million race Saturday at Santa Anita.

In the end, owners Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith, and Susan Magnier along with trainer Aiden O'Brien felt the $1 million Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile was the better option.

"Looking at him racing you'd say that he's crying out to go a mile and a quarter because of his style, but it's a little bit deceptive," O'Brien said Wednesday surrounded by reporters during a late-morning press conference. "His best run no doubt was over six furlongs when they went very fast. We felt there was a chance he might not be one to maybe get the mile and a quarter in the Classic."

Mastercraftsman, a 3-year-old colt who has won four Group 1 races at a mile or shorter, was installed as the 6-5 morning-line favorite by Santa Anita linemaker Jon White, the strongest favorite he made among the 14 races. Mastercraftsman's nine rivals include Midshipman, last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner; Bullsbay, the Whitney winner; and Grade 1 winners Pyro and Mr. Sidney.

One reason O'Brien thinks the Dirt Mile is a good fit for Mastercraftsman is because he expects the pace to be extremely fast, which would allow Mastercraftsman to be taken off the pace and come with a strong late run under Johnny Murtagh. O'Brien may be surprised when he looks at the race and sees a surprising lack of speed.

"The risk is that he could get out of it halfway and be coming home real well, but maybe not get there," said O'Brien, who entered this year's Breeders' Cup on an 0-for-28 skid since High Chaparral dead-heated for win in the 2003 Turf.

If Mastercraftsman is to win the Dirt Mile, he will likely have to run down Midshipman, who won last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile over this track and who has emerged as the primary speed horse in the Dirt Mile. Midshipman has run only once this year, winning a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race by 3 1/4 lengths at Belmont on dirt. Overall, he is 4 for 5 in his career.

"He's not the average horse that's run five times," said Rick Mettee, the North American assistant trainer for Godolphin. "He's won over this track, on this surface around two turns [from] a bad post. Let's face it, he's probably going to be pulling a similar trip. If somebody wants to go they're going to have to be going pretty fast."

Garrett Gomez, who rode Midshipman to victory in last year's Juvenile, has the call from post 3.

Godolphin will also be represented by Pyro, who finished sixth in this race last year. Pyro is a fresher horse this year, having won the Grade 1 Forego in just his second start of the season.

"He's a Grade 1 winner," Mettee said. "We just felt he was doing so good there was really no harm bringing him out here and trying him in this race."

Bullsbay, like Mastercraftsman, was pre-entered in this race and the Classic. Trainer Graham Motion chose this race because he felt more confident in his horse's ability at a mile over a synthetic surface than at 1 1/4 miles. Bullsbay has a win and two seconds at Santa Anita, but that was before the surface that now exists was installed.

The connections of Mr. Sidney opted for the synthetic Dirt Mile over the one on turf because they felt it was an easier spot. In his lone start on synthetic, Mr. Sidney ran second in an allowance race at Keeneland, finishing ahead of Bullsbay.

Chocolate Candy finished second in the Santa Anita Derby here in April and, most recently, was fifth in the Goodwood. His trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, was hoping there would be more speed in the field.

"We'll have to try to adjust," Hollendorfer said. "He can lay up more and be tactical because he has done that in his other races."

Neko Bay has never won a stakes race, but is coming off a sharp allowance win over a stakes-caliber field in an Oct. 9 allowance race here, his first start of the year. Furthest Land comes off a career-best effort winning the Kentucky Cup Classic. Mambo Meister won the Spend a Buck Handicap at Calder on Oct. 17. Ready's Echo, who has had success over synthetic, may be the most compromised by a lack of pace.

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