10/03/2003 12:00AM

Mineshaft is retired


ELMONT, N.Y. - Speculation whether Mineshaft, the top handicap horse in the country, would run in the Breeders' Cup Classic ended on Friday when trainer Neil Howard announced the horse's retirement because of a combination of injuries.

Mineshaft won four Grade 1 races in 2003, including the Jockey Club Gold Cup last Saturday, and is a strong candidate for Horse of the Year.

Howard and veterinarian Foster Northrop said in a telephone conference call Friday that a small non-displaced chip in Mineshaft's right front ankle was diagnosed after he won the Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park on July 5. Their comments Friday were the first public acknowledgement of the injury.

After winning last Saturday's Jockey Club Gold Cup for his third consecutive Grade 1 victory, Mineshaft was returned to Kentucky, where Howard said X-rays revealed that the chip had broken off and was "free floating" in the ankle joint, which made racing the horse risky. In addition, Northrop said he discovered degeneration in the third carpal bone of the 4-year-old's right knee and a small non-displaced chip in his left front ankle. None of the injuries will require surgery.

"When you combine the three injuries, they pose a real risk to the health of the horse if Mineshaft were to continue to race," Northrop said.

Howard and Will Farish, Mineshaft's co-breeder and co-owner, had been extremely reluctant to commit Mineshaft to the Breeders' Cup even before he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Howard said the reluctance to commit to the Classic, which will be run at Santa Anita on Oct. 25, stemmed from concerns about the ankle injury that was diagnosed after the Suburban. Howard said the original injury required close monitoring but did not pose a danger to the horse.

Farish, the United States ambassador to Britain, said in a statement from London, "This is disappointing, because we very much wanted to run in the Breeders' Cup Classic."

Mineshaft's retirement has left the door open for another top handicap horse, such as Medaglia d'Oro or Perfect Drift, to nab Horse of the Year honors with a win in the Classic.

"In my heart, [Mineshaft] is Horse of the Year," Howard said. "In reality, we are not sitting here playing checkers every night wondering what 50-1 shot will win the Classic, so we can get Horse of the Year. There are still three or four very strong horses out there you can make a strong case for in the Breeders' Cup."

Howard said Mineshaft would leave his Churchill Downs barn early next week for Farish's Lane's End Farm in Versailles, Ky., where he will stand next year. Lane's End previously announced that Mineshaft, a son of A.P. Indy out Prospector's Delite, would be retired at the end of the year and stand for $100,000.

Farish bred and campaigned Mineshaft in partnership with James Elkin Jr. and Temple Webber Jr.

Mineshaft retires with a record of 10-3-1 from 18 starts and earned $2,283,402. In addition to his wins this year in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Suburban, Mineshaft won the Grade 1 Woodward and Grade 1 Pimlico Special. The last time he lost was in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs, when he was beaten by Perfect Drift.