06/11/2003 11:00PM

Mineshaft vs. Aldebaran

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The sun shines bright? Not here, not now. Nearly a week's worth of rain at this old Kentucky home has been keeping the corn top from ripening and the meadows from blooming, not to mention the Churchill Downs main track from drying out.

Nonetheless, it would be difficult to imagine the connections of the two favorites for the Stephen Foster Handicap singing the blues. Both Mineshaft and Aldebaran turned in outstanding performances in winning Grade 1 races over sloppy tracks in their last start, so neither horse figures to be hindered by the likelihood of another sea of slop Saturday at Churchill.

Mineshaft, the 123-pound highweight who drew the far outside post in a field of 12 older horses entered in the 1 1/8-mile Foster, was sensational in capturing the Grade 1 Pimlico Special in his last start, his third straight victory in a graded stakes. In fact, Mineshaft has been so impressive in those recent races and in training up to the Foster that his normally conservative trainer, Neil Howard, has been moved to use superlatives such as "phenomenal" and "magnificent" in describing the 4-year-old A.P. Indy colt.

Similarly, Aldebaran, who will carry 120 pounds and start from post 8, enters in peak form. After being labeled as something of a bridesmaid through his 4-year-old campaign last year, Aldebaran has shredded that derogatory tag this year by winning 3 of 4 races, including the Grade 1 San Carlos at Santa Anita and, most recently, the Grade 1 Met Mile over a sloppy track at Belmont Park.

Although the supporting cast includes such accomplished runners as Proud Citizen and Perfect Drift, the second- and third-place finishers in the Kentucky Derby last year, it is the first matchup of Mineshaft and Aldebaran that provides the greatest focus of the Grade 1 Foster 'Cap.

Aldebaran, said Howard, "is a quality horse. I'm sure he'll be taking the fight to us at some point. But we've got a lot of confidence in our horse. He's been training superbly since his Pimlico win, and his breeze here this week was extremely good. We're looking forward to a big race."

The most intriguing variable concerning Aldebaran is whether he can effectively stretch out around two turns. Trainer Bobby Frankel, who already has won 10 Grade 1 races this year, acknowledged that the longer distance of the Foster is uncharted territory for Aldebaran, but that the 5-year-old horse has a useful running style.

"He's so rateable," he said.

Robby Albarado rides Mineshaft, while Jerry Bailey, who last Saturday rode Empire Maker to win the Belmont Stakes for Frankel, is the rider of Aldebaran.

Whereas trainer D. Wayne Lukas said he would prefer a fast track for Proud Citizen (post 11), who will be making his third start since a lengthy layoff, the probability of slop does not bother Murray Johnson, trainer of Perfect Drift (post 9).

"Churchill is a unique track, and both of the favorites won somewhere else last time," said Johnson.

Among the longshots, Consistency may be the most dangerous, having won four of five career starts. Like the top four wagering choices, he also drew outside, having been assigned post 10 with Mark Guidry to ride.

From the rail, the rest of the field is Bonus Pack, Slider, Colonial Colony, Crafty Shaw, Full Mandate, Woodmoon, and Unbridled Vision.

The Stephen Foster, named for the Kentucky legend who wrote "My Old Kentucky Home," was first run in 1982 and got a major purse hike in 1998. It wasn't long thereafter that the race was granted Grade 1 status. Winners in recent years include such handicap stars as Awesome Again (1998), Victory Gallop (1999), and Street Cry (2002).

The Foster, with a scheduled 5:44 post time, is part of a pick four wager with three other Saturday stakes at Churchill - the Fleur de Lis, Regret, and Northern Dancer. Churchill has guaranteed a minimum pool of $250,000 for the all-stakes pick four.