10/22/2002 11:00PM

On merit, Sky Mesa gets nod


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Racing luck could play a more critical role in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile than in any of the other races on Cup Day. A full field of 14 is expected, and the opportunity for trouble, particularly leaving the gate or on the first turn, is considerable. These are 2-year-olds, and while they are talented, they still have elements of inexperience about them.

Racing luck aside, Sky Mesa looks like the one to beat on the basis of his record. He has impressed in all three of his starts, and has indicated that the unusual distance of this year's Juvenile - nine furlongs - should not prove a barrier.

"Sky Mesa appears to be coming to the Juvenile the way we hoped," said Donna Ward, who trains the Pulpit colt in partnership with her husband, John Ward Jr. "He had a good tune-up in the Breeders' Futurity. Keeneland has a short stretch, and we stressed to Edgar Prado that it is important to be close to the lead at the head of the stretch because it is easy for a horse in front at that point to remain on the lead.

"In the Hopeful at Saratoga, Sky Mesa had a target to fix on and he finished well. That wasn't the case at Keeneland, but he ran well."

Sky Mesa's final work at Keeneland, before shipping here, was a smart five furlongs in 59 seconds, going out six furlongs in 1:13, seven furlongs in 1:28, and pulling up a mile in 1:42. He worked five furlongs in 1:05 Monday at Arlington, but the rider was under caution not to squeeze the lemon dry.

"This will be his fourth race in a period of 12 weeks," Donna Ward noted. "There was also the virus at Saratoga after his first start, which kept him out of training for five days.

"He is mature in many ways but he is still a 2-year-old. Nothing he has done is indicative of late-season fatigue, and we have monitored him carefully. He is an exceptional young horse, and if he has a good trip, we think he'll be equal to the occasion."

The competition in the Juvenile promises to be keen, and one of the most attractive colts is Vindication. A son of Seattle Slew, Vindication was purchased as a yearling for $2,150,000 by Satish Satin of Padua Stable. He won all three of his starts and impressed when capturing the Kentucky Cup Juvenile by six widening lengths.

Ireland's Aidan O'Brien, who saddled Johannesburg to win last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, returns with a live prospect, Hold That Tiger, a Storm Cat colt purchased at Keeneland for $1,100,000. With an ability to finish strongly, Hold That Tiger has won 3 of 4 starts, including the Group 1 Grand Criterium at Longchamp.

Toccet won his last 3 of 4 starts, and looked very capable winning the Champagne. A homebred colt by Awesome Again, he makes a habit of winning off with a flourish. He is trained by John Scanlan for Daniel Borislow.

Whywhywhy, a Mr. Greeley colt, won his last 3 of 4 starts and enhanced his credentials with an authoritative victory in the Grade 1 Futurity. With some speed in front of him, he has an effective closing punch.

In 18 runnings of the Juvenile, the favorite has won eight times. The unexpected is the norm.