09/29/2009 11:00PM

Much drama surrounds Classic

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Barbara D. Livingston
California's star mare Zenyatta could enhance her

ARCADIA, Calif. - The results of last year's Breeders' Cup, the first ever run on a synthetic surface, have had a major impact on this year's event, to be held Nov. 6 and 7 here at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting.

No race last year was more significant than the Classic, in which European invaders Raven's Pass and Henrythenavigator finished one-two in the 1 1/4-mile race, with favored Curlin fourth. The success of the Europeans in that race specifically, and in the two-day event generally, has emboldened many of the best horses in Europe to head here again this year.

Sea the Stars, considered the best horse on that continent, is a distinct possibility to run in this year's Classic after a scheduled start Sunday in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in France. Rip Van Winkle, like Raven's Pass the winner of the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot, is also on his way, and Mastercraftsman, a surprise starter in Friday's Diamond Stakes over the synthetic track at Dundalk in Ireland, is a possibility.

Yet the loss by Curlin has made his owner, Jess Jackson, adamant that he will not run anything on the main track Pro-Ride surface in this year's Breeders' Cup, most notably Rachel Alexandra, widely considered the current front-runner for Horse of the Year.

But this year's Classic is shaping up as such a compelling race that several scenarios exist in which the Horse of the Year discussion could be greatly expanded. The best horse in Europe (Sea the Stars), best turf horse in the United States (Gio Ponti), many of the best older horses in the U.S. (Colonel John, Einstein, Rail Trip), the Kentucky Derby winner (Mine That Bird), the Belmont and Travers winner (Summer Bird), and the best mare in the land (Zenyatta) all could run in the Classic.

Here are just a few of the possible scenarios that could reignite the debate over Horse of the Year:

* If Sea the Stars wins the Arc, and then comes over here and wins the Classic on a new surface, it might be difficult to deny the best horse in the world the top title in North America.

* If Gio Ponti continues his winning streak with a victory in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont Park on Saturday, then closes out the year with a win over a star-studded field on a different surface in the Classic, his credentials will rise

exponentially.

* And if Zenyatta does, in fact, take on the boys and beats a deep, competitive field to keep her perfect record intact, her resume would certainly stack up with Rachel Alexandra's.

Zenyatta is scheduled to make her next start in the Grade 1, $300,000 Lady's Secret Stakes here on Oct. 10. After that, trainer John Shirreffs said, she will run in the $2 million Ladies' Classic - in which she is the defending champion - on Nov. 6, or the Classic on Nov. 7.

"A lot will depend on who shows up from Europe," Shirreffs said earlier this week at his barn at Hollywood Park. "It seems that the Pro-Ride really favors turf horses."

Shirreffs said the ramifications of Horse of the Year are not paramount as to which BC race is chosen for Zenyatta.

"It seems like Horse of the Year is already decided, from what I've read," Shirreffs said. He believes that the Breeders' Cup is the sport's championship event, and should be treated as such.

"It's disappointing that it seems people have made up their minds so early," he said. "I'm trying to not read a lot, because it's upsetting. We're just going to do the best for Zenyatta. We're going to race her, and enjoy her."

Shirreffs also trains Tiago, who finished third in last year's Classic. He will have his final prep for the Classic in the Grade 1, $350,000 Goodwood Stakes here on Oct. 10.

Others pointing for the Goodwood include Colonel John, Mine That Bird, and Richard's Kid, the upset winner of the Pacific Classic at Del Mar.

Richard's Kid needs a rider, though. Mike Smith, who rode Richard's Kid in the Pacific Classic, has committed to Tiago, who, like Zenyatta, is trained by Shirreffs and owned by Jerry and Ann Moss. Victor Espinoza, Baffert's first choice as a replacement, is on Chocolate Candy. Rafael Bejarano is also taken. He will ride Parading, fourth in the Pacific Classic.

"This horse gets no respect," Baffert said.

Einstein, who was second in the Pacific Classic but won the Santa Anita Handicap earlier this year, will not race again until the BC Classic, trainer Helen Pitts said. Rail Trip, the Hollywood Gold Cup winner who was third in the Pacific Classic, also will head straight to the BC Classic for trainer Ron Ellis.

The races with BC Classic implications this week are an eclectic bunch. Sea the Stars is running on the grass in France. Gio Ponti is running on the grass in New York. The Grade 1, $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup on Saturday at Belmont Park is expected to include Summer Bird, Quality Road, and Macho Again. Less significant is the Grade 2, $500,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup on Saturday.

This will be the second straight year that the Breeders' Cup will be held at Santa Anita - the first time that has happened in the Breeders' Cup's 26-year history - and the fifth time it will be held here overall. The Classic is the final race of a two-day, 14-race extravaganza worth $25.5 million in prize money.

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