10/28/2002 12:00AM

Round XIX packed a wallop


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - One of the best.

Nineteen Breeders' Cups are history, and only a few can, on reflection, compare with Saturday's races for quality, drama, and significance. It was an overwhelming day of racing for many - just what John Gaines had in mind when he conceived the brilliant format in the early 1980's.

Outstanding performances by Azeri in the Distaff and Volponi in the Classic opened and closed the program. Others who distinguished themselves, and not only in a winning cause, included Storm Flag Flying, Rock of Gibraltar, Orientate, Starine, Vindication, High Chaparral, and With Anticipation.

Add the name of Arlington Park to the honor list. Hosting the Breeders' Cup for the first time, the performance by management and staff was first class. Many of the 46,000 on hand were apparently making their first visit, and we heard many complimentary comments about the track's beauty and its functional qualities.

The 19th Breeders' Cup had an improbable hero in a 77-year-old Chicagoan, but it is important to remember that Phil Johnson was a Hall of Fame trainer long before Volponi came on the scene. He won the Suburban Handicap of 1977 with Quiet Little Table, the Alabama of 1988 with Maplejinsky, the Coaching Club American Oaks of 1983 with High Schemes, the Flower Bowl Handicap of 1993 with Far Out Beast, the Brooklyn Handicap of 1978 with Nasty and Bold, and numerous other important features.

Johnson's racing career began in 1942 with the purchase of Song Master at a Chicago sale for $75. Song Master won at Hawthorne in 1944 and Johnson was on his way. He shifted his stable from Chicago to New York in 1962 and developed many good stakes winners, some of them homebreds, like Volponi.

Volponi, by Cryptoclearance, won a stakes on the grass at 2, won a stakes on the dirt at 3, and won stakes on dirt and grass this year. He was close in all his stakes engagements of 2002, but with limited Grade 1 exposure was lightly regarded at 43-1 in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Volponi didn't just win the $4 million Classic - he slammed it, with a winning margin of more than six lengths. He stalked the leaders during the early stages, then accelerated into the stretch and drew away to win with vast authority. Bobby Frankel's fine 3-year-old, Medaglia d'Oro, was second as the 5-2 favorite, and Frankel's handicap star, Milwaukee Brew, was third.

Azeri extended her winning streak to seven by capturing the Distaff. She underlined her superiority in the division by leading all the way and turning back a challenge mounted by the sensational Farda Amiga. Azeri, who has a remarkable career record of 10 victories from 11 starts, is now the leading candidate for Horse of the Year laurels.

Storm Flag Flying earned her fourth victory in as many starts by winning the Juvenile Fillies. She also showed great courage under fire, surrendering the lead on the final turn and then coming again to nip Composure by a half-length.

Rock of Gibraltar, who won seven consecutive Group 1's in Europe, missed the break in the Mile and lost all chance. Yet he passed most of the field to finish second, a remarkable effort that attests to his high level of class. Orientate, a top sprinter all season, won the Sprint with a strong finish, and the hard-hitting Starine looked very much at home winning the Filly and Mare Turf.

Vindication, a $2,150,000 son of Seattle Slew, was best in the Juvenile. But he did not face Sky Mesa, the division leader,who injured the cannon bone of his right foreleg. High Chaparral, the Epsom and Irish Derby winner, is full of class and was a deserving winner of the Turf. With Anticipation, who raced hard and successfully all season, also turned in a superior effort to finish second.