09/25/2003 12:00AM

Stakes high for Mineshaft

Mineshaft, with Robby Albarado up, nears the end of his career in Saturday's Jockey Club Gold Cup. After that, only the BC Classic remains.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Even with a horse as talented as Mineshaft, trainer Neil Howard can't alter his nervous-Nellie ways. On Wednesday night, sitting in his New York hotel room, Howard picked up the phone to call jockey Robby Albarado and discuss the potential pitfalls facing his top handicap horse in Saturday's $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.

Examining the potential field for the Gold Cup, Howard saw a talented front-runner in Moon Ballad, who didn't look to face any early pressure in the 1 1/4-mile race. Howard just wanted Albarado to be aware of the potential scenario.

"I called him out of nervousness," Howard said. "I didn't call him for any other reason. You're nervous with all your horses, especially with a horse like this when there's a lot on the line. Once you've got a horse that's gotten to this point then you really want to finish out the year on a good note."

Mineshaft begins finishing out the year - and his career - Saturday when he faces four rivals in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Among his rivals will be Dubai World Cup winner Moon Ballad and defending Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Evening Attire. Longshots Quest and State Shinto were also entered after their connections learned of the defection of Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker because of a bruised foot.

The Jockey Club Gold Cup is one of four Grade 1 races on Saturday's 11-race card that begins at 1 p.m. Also on the program are the $500,000 Vosburgh for sprinters, the $750,000 Flower Bowl Invitational for females at 1 1/4 miles on turf, and the $750,000 Turf Classic Invitational at 1 1/2 miles for males on the turf. The four stakes make up a $500,000 guaranteed pick-four pool. Fans who pay to get in will also receive a Belmont T-shirt.

Should Mineshaft win the Gold Cup, he would become just the second horse to win the Suburban, Woodward, and Gold Cup in the same year. Kelso, in 1961, was the other. Sword Dancer, Forego, Easy Goer, and Skip Away all won the three races, but not in the same year.

Albarado said he wasn't surprised to hear from Howard Wednesday night.

"I know how Neil is," Albarado said. "He gets that way closer and closer to the race. I'm sure after Mineshaft crosses the wire he lets the air out of the balloon. I get nervous too before he runs because there's a lot at stake."

At stake are championship honors. Mineshaft could virtually lock up older horse of the year award with a victory Saturday while polishing his credentials for Horse of the Year, an honor that could be on the line in the Breeders' Cup Classic Oct. 25 at Santa Anita.

Mineshaft has done it with a remarkable display of consistency and speed that makes him one of the most talented horses to come around in years. He has the ability to get into his races early and put the competition away by the three-eighths pole. While Moon Ballad may be the main speed of the Gold Cup, Mineshaft won't let him get too far away.

"I don't believe there's going to be anybody backing down the pace or slowing it down too much," Albarado said. "If they do back it up, [Mineshaft] will be the pace himself."

Moon Ballad, a son of Singspiel, is 3 for 4 on dirt, including a five-length victory over Harlan's Holiday in the $6 million Dubai World Cup in March. His owner, Godolphin Racing, tried in vain to get him a Group 1 turf win in Europe, but was always pointing him to a fall campaign on dirt.

Moon Ballad won the Dubai World Cup from a stalking position, but went wire to wire in the prep for the World Cup. He figures to be the horse to catch in the Gold Cup under Jerry Bailey, who has won this race three of the last eight years.

"Wherever he's comfortable will be the right place for this horse to be in the race," said Simon Crisford, racing manager for Godolphin Racing. "He's got a lot of natural speed and he could well find himself right with the pace if not on the lead. We'd be happy either way because he is a speed horse with hopefully a bit of acceleration at the end of the contest as well."

Evening Attire will try to become the eighth horse to win back-to-back runnings of the Gold Cup. The big gray gelding will drop back and make one big run under Mark Guidry.

"He's one of those horses that sort of gets himself together and if it works out okay he gets a big piece if it," trainer Pat Kelly said. "If it doesn't work out okay he gets second or third."

The field

Jockey Club Gold Cup

Purse: $1,000,000; 1 1/4 miles; Grade 1

1QuestE. Prado15-1
2Moon BalladJ. Bailey6-1
3MineshaftR. Alvarado1-5
4Evening AttireM. Guidry5-1
5State ShintoR. Migliore20-1

* All starters carry 126 pounds

* Odds by Dan Illman