09/24/2003 12:00AM

One step at a time for Mineshaft

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Mineshaft was going to be a heavy favorite in Saturday's $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park even before the defection of Empire Maker. The outcome was considered such a fait accompli that the focus in recent days has not been on what Mineshaft will do on Saturday, but what he will do after the race.

A victory in the Grade 1 Gold Cup would be the seventh in nine starts this year for Mineshaft, his fourth in a Grade 1 race, and would make Mineshaft the leading contender for both an Eclipse Award as champion older horse and Horse of the Year. The obvious next goal would be the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting on Oct. 25. Mineshaft is the 8-5 early favorite for the Classic on the line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. But Mineshaft's connections, as they have all year, are taking a wait-and-see attitude before committing to anything beyond Saturday.

"Going out there is always a question," Neil Howard, who trains Mineshaft, said in reference to California. "It's not like packing up a tack trunk and shipping him to Pimlico. It adds a degree of difficulty to it. It's a concern, but it's not something you dwell on."

Reached in London, where he is the United States ambassador, William S. Farish, who bred and owns Mineshaft in a partnership, said Mineshaft's Breeders' Cup status "depends on how he comes out of the race."

"We've said all along we'll take it one race at a time, and look at things after each race," said Bill Farish, who is overseeing his father's racing interests - such as the family's Lane's End Farm in Kentucky - while his father serves his ambassadorship. "We'll probably go, but we can't say definitely that's the case. It would be awfully hard not to go."

Regardless, Will Farish said, Mineshaft will not race after the Breeders' Cup. With his outstanding record and glittering pedigree, Mineshaft will be retired to stud at Lane's End.

Mineshaft has recorded Beyer Speed Figures of 115 or higher in six consecutive races, all since adding Lasix. He has lost just one of those races, and it was a controversial one, a head loss in the Stephen Foster Handicap while giving eight pounds to the victorious Perfect Drift.

"He's the best horse I've ever owned," Farish said. "He's just got such talent. He's got an amazing attitude, he's incredibly bred, and as an athlete, you can put him anywhere you want in a race, and he's got a great kick."

Mineshaft has thrived at Belmont Park, cruising to victories in the Suburban Handicap and Woodward Stakes in his last two starts.

Moon Ballad, the likely second choice in the Gold Cup, is seeking to prove that his victory in the Dubai World Cup was not a fluke. He finished ninth and fifth in two subsequent starts, both on turf in Europe.

"Yes, questions have to be answered," admitted Simon Crisford, the racing manager for Godolphin Racing Inc., which owns Moon Ballad. Crisford said the Dubai World Cup form "hasn't really stacked up. You can pick holes in the form of that race."

"Dirt is his preferred surface, "Crisford added. "This is the best route to the Breeders' Cup Classic. We're hoping he'll step up now, now that he's back on his preferred surface."

No more than five are expected in the Gold Cup. Empire Maker is out because he re-injured his left front hoof, said his trainer, Bobby Frankel.

The injury casts doubt on whether Empire Maker can race four weeks hence in the Breeders' Cup Classic, which had been scheduled as the final career start for Empire Maker. Frankel said Peace Rules might become a Classic contender now.

Perfect Drift is scheduled to run in Sunday's Grade 2, $750,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup, but his trainer, Murray Johnson, said Perfect Drift is not being considered for the Classic. Tenpins could earn his way to the Classic with a victory at Hawthorne.

Volponi, the upset winner of last year's Classic, will prep in the same race he did last year, the Grade 2, $400,000 Meadowlands Cup Handicap on Oct. 3.

Toccet and the comebacking Pleasantly Perfect are scheduled to head the field in the Grade 2, $500,000 Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap at Santa Anita on Oct. 4. Unbeaten Grand Hombre and Canadian Triple Crown winner Wando are heading to the Grade 3, $400,000 Indiana Derby at Hoosier Park Oct. 4.

Congaree, Hold That Tiger, and Medaglia d'Oro will not race before the Classic.

The hottest 3-year-old in the country, Ten Most Wanted, is "definitely" going to the Classic, his trainer, Wally Dollase, said Wednesday. Ten Most Wanted has won the Travers Stakes and Super Derby in his last two starts. A decision on Soto, the Super Derby runner-up, "won't be made for three weeks," said his trainer, Michael Dickinson.