09/29/2003 12:00AM

Mineshaft's best may be behind him

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NEW YORK - Mineshaft is the best horse in America. He has traveled and won almost everywhere he has gone while competing in the best events available to him. Mineshaft has performed at a high level from January to near October and is thoroughly worthy of not only the champion handicap male title, which he all but clinched with his victory in Saturday's Jockey Club Gold Cup, but of Horse of the Year honors as well.

But I don't think Mineshaft is a cinch anymore in the Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 25, that is, if he even runs in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

No horse can maintain peak form forever. The really good ones hold top form longer than others. That's one of the things that distinguish them from average horses. But even really good horses like Mineshaft can't continue to run one top race after another, most against top competition, forever. After all, they are not machines.

The strong sense I had after the Jockey Club Gold Cup is that maybe this horse is starting to edge back down the mountain. On the surface, it may be hard to find fault with Mineshaft's 4 1/4-length win in the Gold Cup. But a couple of things about Mineshaft's performance caused me to think that it wasn't quite up to the standards he established for himself in his earlier victories in the Woodward, Suburban, and Pimlico Special.

For one, it concerned me that Mineshaft didn't just run away from the runner-up Quest in the stretch. Quest ran a tremendously game race, but he isn't in the same league as Mineshaft. Yet, Mineshaft's five-length lead over Quest at the eighth pole actually shrank by the time they hit the wire.

It is true that Mineshaft was not a driving winner. However, Mineshaft was asked for more run in the stretch than he had been in either the Woodward or Suburban, his prior two starts. In many instances, horses who are less than all-out winners leave the impression that they could have won by a bigger margin, but that was not the case here. Even though he was under only a mild hand ride, I really don't think Mineshaft could have won by much more.

The other thing that troubled me is that Mineshaft required 25.34 seconds to complete his final quarter-mile. Mineshaft did do some serious running through some of the interior fractions of the Gold Cup - he went his second quarter in around 23.20 and his third quarter in approximately 23.60 - but he has still finished stronger in other races than he did in the Gold Cup.

When this is combined with the noncommittal approach his people took to the Breeders' Cup Classic following the Gold Cup, it is fair to wonder if Mineshaft may now finally be over the top, and losing his sharp edge. Mineshaft belongs in the Breeders' Cup Classic, but it is true that if he should be beaten in that race, his reputation would lose some of its luster. That is unfair considering all he has accomplished, but it is the nature of the game. On the other hand, it would be a little more understandable if a horse like Mineshaft, who has now made nine starts this year, fails to answer the bell for the Classic than it is for a horse like Candy Ride, who has raced only three times this year.

It will be interesting to see what Mineshaft's connections decide to do in the next week or two. It would be an unpopular choice if they decide to send Mineshaft home now. That would protect Mineshaft's record and reputation, but it would also risk opening the door to Horse of the Year honors to, say, a Medaglia d'Oro if he should prevail in a severely depleted Classic. Most will feel that going on to the Classic is incumbent upon the Mineshaft camp, but if they do, Mineshaft may be more vulnerable in a race than he has been in months. It's a tougher decision than it appears.

Azeri tailing off, too

Spare me the anguish over the defeat of Azeri in Sunday's Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap at Santa Anita. It wasn't the 128 pounds she had to carry that caused Azeri's win streak to be stopped at 11, nor was it her slow break from the gate. Azeri has had a tremendous run, a run totally attributable to management and race placement by her connections. Despite reports that she bled, this was her second straight iffy performance, giving reason to believe she is tailing off. The 100 Beyer Speed Figure she earned winning at Del Mar in her prior start isn't good enough to win a lot of high-priced claiming races. On Sunday, both Got Koko and Elloluv ran better races than Azeri did. Got Koko, second to Azeri in the Clement Hirsch at Del Mar off a five-month layoff, understandably improved second time back and circled the entire field, going from last to first. Elloluv, making her first start back off a five-month absence, was a serious win threat in the stretch after rating farther off the pace than usual, and she figures to improve next time.

Who ya gonna call? Ghostzapper

One potential replacement at the top of next year's handicap division is Ghostzapper, who was freakish winning Saturday's Vosburgh at Belmont. That may be a strong statement for a colt who has never raced beyond seven furlongs, but Ghostzapper has yet to go long because illness messed up his schedule early this year, and because trainer Bobby Frankel had so many other top horses who were already going long. But, with the enigmatic Empire Maker, for one, likely to be retired, Frankel will have room for more top distance horses next year. He should investigate stretching out Ghostzapper in 2004, and chances are, this colt will be just as effective as he was in the Vosburgh, if not more so.