09/22/2006 12:00AM

Oak Tree should sort Cup players early on


PHOENIX - We already know some of the big names who have an eye cast toward Churchill Downs and the Breeders' Cup come Nov. 4, but the first week or so of the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita figures to provide many other faces you can expect to see on racing's biggest stage, and how they perform at Oak Tree will go a long way in telling us about their chances in Kentucky.

The opening weekend begins with three Grade 1's (Yellow Ribbon, Clement L. Hirsch Turf Championship, Oak Leaf) next Saturday and the Grade 2 Lady's Secret on Sunday. In all likelihood, only the Oak Leaf figures to provide a major Breeders' Cup player. Point Ashley looms a heavy favorite for the Oak Leaf, based on her powerful Del Mar Debutante win. A big performance in the Oak Leaf sends her to Churchill as perhaps the favorite.

As far as the other races next weekend go, crack 3-year-old filly Wait a While may ship out for the Yellow Ribbon, and it looks like a great spot for such an invasion. That's because while the West Coast turf females are a decent bunch, there is no Megahertz or Intercontinental. And this year may well provide the most brutally tough BC Filly and Mare Turf of them all should Ouija Board, Gorella, and Alexandrova invade from Europe. Toss in crack Eastern female turf runners Honey Ryder and Film Critic, and you can see the West Coast fillies might be taking a knife to a gunfight should they go to Kentucky.

It's a similar story with the West's male turf runners, and some of the best of them will go in the Hirsch. But the best one of all, Aragorn, is a miler and he certainly isn't targeting the Hirsch. There is still a small possibility that Lava Man will use the Hirsch as his springboard to the BC Classic. The main power for the BC Turf figures to come from Europe in the form of Hurricane Run or defending champ Shirocco. Toss in Eastern-based Cacique, Showing Up and English Channel, and you again see the West Coast contingent is up against it.

Proposed has been retired, but tough mares Healthy Addiction, Hollywood Story, Island Fashion, and Star Parade continue to knock heads in the major events out West, and they again figure to go at it in the Lady's Secret. Trouble is, good as they have looked at times, they don't appear to measure up to the Todd Pletcher machine, which figures to roll out Fleet Indian, Spun Sugar, and Pool Land for the BC Distaff. Toss in top 3-year-old Pine Island and tough Midwesterner Happy Ticket and, again, there are issues for the West Coast hopefuls. Healthy Addiction may be the best California hope, but even a big run in the Lady's Secret doesn't mean she's going to go to Kentucky - she is to be bred to Tiznow and may instead go to the breeding shed.

Things get brighter for the West Coast contingent the following week as Oak Tree's Grade 1 Ancient Title, Grade 2 Goodwood, Grade 2 Oak Tree BC Mile, and Grade 2 Norfolk can each send a major player or two to Kentucky.

The Ancient Title, Goodwood, and Oak Tree BC Mile, all Oct. 7, may well be the springboard for some BC favorites.

The sprint division is in complete turmoil, what with the death of Lost in the Fog and the report that the defending BC Sprint champ, Silver Train, likely won't defend his title because it's not being held at his beloved Belmont Park. That means a horse like Bordonaro, who has been so good for Bill Spawr all year, may be able to use the Ancient Title to propel himself into BC Sprint favoritism. He's fast, he's consistent, he's proven at a high level outside of Southern California, and he has been freshened and campaigned with the BC Sprint specifically in mind.

The Goodwood figures to be Lava Man's prep for the BC Classic. The wonderful veteran, one of the great claims in the history of the game, is not only the first horse to sweep the three marquee handicap events in Southern California, but he also won the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham on the turf at Hollywood Park. Sure, the BC Classic is coming up brutally tough this year, but Lava Man continues to go from strength to strength, and a big Goodwood run would send him to Kentucky with a warning to others: Do not underestimate.

The Oak Tree BC Mile may reinforce Aragorn's standing as America's premier miler and send him to the BC Mile as one of the favorites. He is a multiple Grade 1 winner out West this year, and last week's Grade 1 Woodbine Mile win by stablemate Becrux flatters him tremendously. After all, Becrux is a real nice horse, but odds are he can't warm up Aragorn. That being said, Aragorn needs another good race at Oak Tree and may well need to improve, because the European BC Mile contingent looks deep and strong as ever, and you know the trouble that can spell for the Americans.

Finally, the Grade 2 Norfolk may tell us whether Horse Greeley is really as good as his Del Mar Futurity made him look. He may have to deal with the Bob Baffert-trained EZ Warrior, the horse who gave him a scare in the Futurity (Great Hunter), and the only horse to have beaten him (Principle Secret).