10/23/2008 11:00PM

Nine Cup races today, and the winners are . . .


NEW YORK - On a day being advertised as featuring "nine championship races," it's entirely possible that Breeders' Cup Saturday will decide only three of flat racing's 11 Eclipse Awards this year.

With the five filly titles relegated to resolution on Friday's card, the remaining honors are for racing's six male champions: 2-year-old, 3-year-old, older horse, sprinter, grass horse, and Horse of the Year. Big Brown, who was retired Oct. 13, will almost certainly be the champion 3-year-old, and Curlin is odds-on to be named the champion older horse and Horse of the Year regardless of how he performs in the Classic, his first start over a synthetic racing surface that has scared off title contenders such as Commentator, the nation's other top older horse, and Vineyard Haven, the leading 2-year-old.

The nine Cup races that begin Saturday's 11-race card at Santa Anita include five that have always been part of what used to be a one-day showdown for all the sport's titles (the Classic, Turf, Sprint, Juvenile, and Mile); the Dirt Mile and Juvenile Turf, events introduced last year at Monmouth Park on the Friday card; and two brand-new events, the Marathon and Turf Sprint. The latter four races have no bearing on any actual championships, and would rate no higher than a Grade 2 or 3 ranking if they qualified to be graded at all.

The nine races run the gamut from meaningful to meaningless, short to long, young to old, and synthetic dirt to real grass, yet almost all of them pose the same two riddles to handicappers: predicting how horses will transfer their established form to what in many cases are unfamiliar surfaces and distances, and how a record number of European imports will match up against the locals.

In the Marathon, Sixties Icon, a long-winded Brit who won the 2006 St. Leger, will move from grass to polymer and may rule a slight favorite over a horse only named for a '60s icon - Zappa, a winner at 1 1/2 miles over Del Mar's Polytrack this summer. I'll try them in that order.

The Turf Sprint may be the most chaotic race on the card because it is being run over Santa Anita's unusual downhill 6 1/2-furlong course, and because the race is crucially longer than the distances over which the favorites have been excelling both here and abroad. I'll stab with the homecoming Diabolical, the Irish filly Fleeting Spirit, and horse-for-course Get Funky, all with little to no confidence.

The "Dirt" Mile, actually run on Pro-Ride, has perhaps the day's most solid favorite in Well Armed, winner of the Goodwood over the track. The field's only other Grade 1 winner, Mast Track, is battling foot problems. The improving 3-year-olds My Pal Charlie and Slew's Tiznow deserve a look at big prices.

The Mile looks like a showdown between the Irish 3-year-old filly Goldikova and last year's Mile winner, the Oklahoma-bred Kip Deville. Precious Kitten, a 5-year-old mare, rates an upset chance.

In the Juvenile, Grade 1 synthetic-track winners Midshipman, Square Eddie, and Street Hero will try to catch up to Vineyard Haven, and I like them in that order. Bushranger, a Group 1 winner in England and France on grass, could swallow them all if he handles the surface.

The Juvenile Turf is another trans-Atlantic matchup, with Ireland's Westphalia and England's Donativum having an experience advantage over America's Bittel Road and Canada's Grand Adventure. The edge goes to the Europeans.

The Sprint has drawn an unusually small field of nine in a year where no one has yet stepped up decisively to take divisional leadership from the retired Benny the Bull. I'll spread out here using both of the two most brilliant runners - Fabulous Strike and defending champ Midnight Lute, despite brief campaigns and no success to date on synthetic tracks - as well as the proven California-based synthetic specialists In Summation, Cost of Freedom, and Street Boss.

You can make a case for at least 7 of the 11 horses in the Turf, but the history of the race suggests leaning toward those who have been racing in Europe most recently. I'll take Soldier of Fortune, Conduit, and Eagle Mountain in that order, but wouldn't be shocked by former Turf winners Better Talk Now, the durable 9-year-old, or Red Rocks, the only horse to beat Curlin this year.

Ah, Curlin. Generally acknowledged as the best racehorse in the world, last year's Classic winner saved this Cup from obscurity by showing up at all despite his handlers' leeriness about trying the new track. If the race were on dirt he'd be close to a cinch, and he'll win it anyway if he handles the surface, but that's a big if. None of the other American runners is in his league, though several have run well on synthetics, and the three very accomplished Europeans (Duke of Marmalade, Henrythenavigator, and Raven's Pass) are complete unknowns on anything but grass. More than anything else, they're here on a roll of the dice that a good showing would make them attractive as American stallion prospects.

I'll be leaning on Curlin, partly because I wouldn't know where else to turn - and partly because amid so much uncertainty, you can do worse than to take clearly the best horse and simply hope for the best.