09/17/2008 12:00AM

Second-last stop coming up


There is a big red circle around Saturday, Sept. 27, on the calendar hanging over this desk, and not just because it happens to be the third birthday of the pint-sized princess who runs this household. I certainly don't need any help remembering the date, which comes out a very moist "Theptember twenny-theventh" when you ask her.

Birthdays are swell, especially when you can't remember your first two all that well. But in terms of the national racing scene, Sept. 27 will offer an unprecedented pile of goodies. On that day, more fine horses will be running in more graded races (17) at more tracks (Belmont, Santa Anita, Turfway Park, and Hawthorne) than on any other afternoon of the season. Ladies and gentlemen, start your TiVos.

With Big Brown safely bedded down after his arrogant tour of the Monmouth Park turf course last Saturday, a huge hunk of the 9/27 attention will be rained down upon the appearance of Curlin in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. It could be Curlin's final prep for the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, four weeks later at Santa Anita. It could be his adios to America, with only the hazy suggestion of the Japan Cup Dirt as a possible encore. It also could be Curlin's last hurrah, so enjoy it.

If the Gold Cup is indeed Curlin's prep for the Classic, he will be following a long line of horses who have used the Belmont event as a springboard to the Breeders' Cup, including such Gold Cup winners as Slew o' Gold, Vanlandingham, Waquoit, Easy Goer, Flying Continental, Festin, Pleasant Tap, Miner's Mark, River Keen, Albert the Great, Aptitude, Evening Attire, Funny Cide, Borrego, and Bernardini.

For what it's worth, they all got beat in the Classic. In fact, only three horses in the 24-year history of the Breeders' Cup finished their seasons with a Gold Cup-Classic double - Cigar in 1995, Skip Away in 1997, and last year's 3-year-old version of Curlin.

How you get to the Breeders' Cup Classic does not seem to matter. Wild Again prepped in a minor race on the Bay Meadows turf course 13 days before winning the first running at Hollywood Park in 1984. Proud Truth ended up in the Discovery Handicap just seven days before the 1985 Classic at Aqueduct. He won them both. And never forget Arcangues, who tipped his mitt for that 133-1 score in the 1993 Classic with a fourth-place finish in the Prix Dollar. In France.

Now comes word that Duke of Marmalade, Europe's best horse, might have his final prep for the Classic on Sept. 27 in what would be little more than an exhibition race at the brand new Great Leighs racecourse in England's Essex County. If it happens, the Duke would be about the biggest thing to come to the town of Chelmsford since Guglielmo Marconi built his first radio factory there in 1899.

The attraction for trainer Adian O'Brien is both the timing of the Great Leighs race, and the fact that it will be run over a Polytrack course that is at least distantly related to the freshly laid Pro-Ride synthetic surface at Santa Anita. Trainers everywhere have been agonizing over whether or not to send their horses early to California to get a feel of the new ground, or keep them home and ship in late. Rick Dutrow, for one, will train Big Brown at Aqueduct until the last minute. Richard Mandella, who has been training over the new surface every day since it was unveiled Aug. 30, understands Dutrow's point of view.

The last time the Breeders' Cup came to Santa Anita, in 2003, Mandella won an unprecedented four events, including the Classic with Pleasantly Perfect. This time around, he is hard-pressed to find a worthy runner.

"At least that means I'm neutral," said Mandella, who is also a board member of the host Oak Tree Racing Association.

"If I had a horse good enough for one of the Breeders' Cup races, I don't think he'd have to practice over the new surface," Mandella said. "In my mind, they're a little above that. You get him ready to run and you run him. Obviously, out of the race there will be excuses, that a horse didn't like the track. But I've got to think most horses will."

There have been a number of high-profile trainers agonizing over the staging of the Breeders' Cup over something other than God's own true dirt. Abroad, however, sentiments tend to differ, as reflected by racing writer Greg Wood in The Guardian.

"O'Brien, who lost George Washington in the filthy New Jersey slop, has more reason than most to plot a cautious path back to the States," Wood wrote this week. This year's Breeders' Cup, though, is a new beginning, the first ever to be staged on an artificial surface, and O'Brien, like many other European trainers, seems very eager to play his part.

"In truth," Wood added, "it would be a poor reflection on the ambition of trainers and owners on this side of the Atlantic if Europe did not send a team of record-breaking proportions to Santa Anita next month. The switch from dirt to an artificial surface means every race of the two-day meeting . . . is now a realistic target for a suitable horse, and Europe has plenty of those."