09/24/2001 11:00PM

Oak Tree a springboard to the Cup

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Trainer Bruce Headley is not shy expressing his enthusiasm for California racing.

Asked on Monday how many Breeders' Cup races he expects California-based horses to win at Belmont Park on Oct. 27, Headley said: "How many do they got?"

There are eight Breeders' Cup races, which makes it extremely difficult if not impossible for one circuit to dominate a program that brings together many of the world's best Thoroughbreds.

Nonetheless, the California shippers are expected to play an important role in this year's Breeders' Cup. Major stakes the next two weekends at the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting, will help reveal which California-based runners are top Cup contenders.

Headley trains California's best chance for a Breeders' Cup Day winner in Kona Gold, the 7-year-old gelding who won the Breeders' Cup Sprint last year at Churchill Downs.

Unbeaten in three starts this year, Kona Gold is expected to start in the $200,000 Ancient Title Breeders' Cup Handicap on Oct. 6, a race he won last year in his final start before the Breeders' Cup Sprint. As recently as late summer, Headley considered an October prep race in New York, but decided to stay home.

"I didn't want to change his game plan," Headley said. "It worked last year."

Last year, Kona Gold was one of three California-based horses to win on the Breeders' Cup program, along with Tiznow (Classic) and War Chant (Mile), both of whom won prep races at Oak Tree.

In the other Breeders' Cup races, two winners came from Keeneland, and one each from Arlington Park, Europe, and Woodbine. In 1999 at Gulfstream Park, Oak Tree-prepped runners won two Breeders' Cup races, one less than horses from Belmont Park. Though the event is at belmont this year, Headley feels the West Coast horses still will fare.

"I think we've got the best racetrack, the best trainers, and the best horses," he said. "Let the others come here and take us on."

Headley's provincialism aside, the upcoming Oak Tree prep races are loaded with Breeders' Cup hopefuls.

Tiznow, the 2000 Horse of the Year, may start in the Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap on Oct. 7, a race he won last year. His trainer, Jay Robbins, said the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park on Oct. 6 is also a consideration. Tiznow was third in the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park earlier this month, giving him a start over the Belmont track.

"I don't think the locale has much to do with it," Robbins said of where Breeders' Cup winners prepare. "Maybe the weather here is a factor. We don't get much rain."

Dry weather provides California with outstanding conditions for turf racing, and the proof is in the Breeders' Cup Mile. Silic and War Chant, the last two winners of the Breeders' Cup Mile, won the Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile, which this year will be run on Oct. 7. Thady Quill, winner of the Wickerr Handicap at Del Mar, is among the leading contenders.

Tranquility Lake will defend her title in the $500,000 Yellow Ribbon Stakes on Saturday, a prep to the $1 million Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf. At Belmont Park on Oct. 27, however, she is more likely to start in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff.

Senure, the winner of the United Nations Handicap at Monmouth Park this summer, will be favored in Sunday's $300,000 Clement Hirsch Memorial Turf Championship, which could lead to a start in the the Breeders' Cup Turf.

The record of Oak Tree starters in the 2-year-old Breeders' Cup races is not as impressive.

In the last 10 years, only Brocco (1993) and Anees (1999) won the Juvenile after starting at Oak Tree. Came Home, who won the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga this year, is California's best chance to improve that record. He is the heavy favorite in Saturday's $250,000 Norfolk Stakes.

Among fillies, Phone Chatter won the Oak Leaf Stakes and the B.C. Juvenile Fillies in 1993, the last Oak Leaf winner to win both races. Habibti, winner of the Del Mar Debutante Aug. 26, will be favored in Sunday's $250,000 Oak Leaf Stakes, and is among the nation's best juvenile fillies.

Trainer Eoin Harty has starters for Godolphin Racing in both races, including Essence of Dubai in the Norfolk Stakes. He planned to ship his runners to Belmont Park earlier this month for races that ended up cancelled. While he could have shipped back in coming days, he has elected to stay home.

"The game in California has tough races," Harty said. "It's more demanding."