10/22/2003 11:00PM

Stars are missing, but Cup still shines


ARCADIA, Calif. - Injuries, retirements, and defections have kept many of this season's star horses out of the Breeders' Cup, but Saturday's eight races are as close and competitive as any reasonable horseplayer could want. While traditional glamour divisions such as the Classic and Juvenile may have come up a bit light, other races, including the Juvenile Fillies and the Turf, are unusually compelling this year.

The Distaff starts the festivities with a field of just seven and a chance for Sightseek to unseat the absent Azeri as the nation's champion older filly or mare. Sightseek has won four straight Grade 1 races by a combined 25 1/2 lengths and will be properly favored to continue her streak and avenge three early-season losses over the Santa Anita track.

Got Koko and Elloluv, one-two under the wire in front of Azeri in the Lady's Secret last time out, are the major threats and are coming into the race perfectly and with home-court advantage. Elloluv could be an attractive overlay at 9-2 but may simply be third best.

The Juvenile Fillies drew every 2-year-old filly of distinction in the country, led by the unbeaten Halfbridled, a daylight winner of three starts including two California stakes. She is a deserving favorite but might be worth taking a shot against after she enjoyed ideal trips in her previous races but drew the outside post in a field of 14 here.

She has two unbeaten rivals who seem the likeliest upsetters. Class Above, a 16-length winner at Turfway last time out, could also be something special, and Society Selection has been perfect in New York. Forest Music, a freakishly fast debut winner in Maryland, adds even more intrigue. If Halfbridled can beat a field of this caliber from post 14, she could be on the road to greatness.

The Mile is the usual grab bag of Americans who take turns beating one another and Europeans who frequently prove simply better at a mile on the grass. The French filly Six Perfections may be the best of the invaders and will have to be, after drawing post 13. The Irish colt Refuse to Bend and the British sprinter Oasis Dream are the other top foreign candidates, while a pair of 6-year-old Kentucky-bred geldings, Special Ring and Designed for Luck, are the top stateside hopes. The classy, consistent 3-year-old Peace Rules thickens the plot.

The Sprint offers a classic handicapping dilemma because of its distance. Aldebaran has been the nation's dominant sprinter this year, but seven furlongs is his specialty and now he shortens up to six for the first time in his career. He'll be flying late, but can he collar six-furlong specialists such as Shake You Down and Valid Video? If he's really the 3-1 that the morning line predicts, it's worth betting that he can.

This is by far the best rendition of the Filly and Mare Turf in its brief history, matching a deep and talented American division against a similar contingent of Europeans. One could plausibly argue that this is the deepest field of grass fillies ever assembled for a single race. The American-based group includes Heat Haze, Voodoo Dancer, Tates Creek, Musical Chimes, and Megahertz, while Islington, Mezzo Soprano, and Yesterday made their last starts in Europe.

You can handicap the race for hours and eight or nine of them still look like they could finish six inches apart - with one possible exception: Islington, who probably should have won the race last year but had a dreadful trip. She has been battling Europe's top males this year and might just prove better than these with a clean journey.

The F&M Turf is the Breeders' Cup at its best, but it is followed by the one sour note on the card. The Juvenile, supposedly a showcase for next year's Triple Crown possibilities, is being skipped by four of the nation's five top

2-year-old colts. In the absence of Birdstone, Ruler's Court, Eurosilver, and Silver Wagon, only Cuvee remains as a major stakes winner. It would have been very tempting to take a position against this quick and sprint-bred colt trying two turns for the first time, but now he doesn't have much to beat in here. Chapel Royal and Tiger Hunt are the second and third choices on the line off sound thrashings by the absent Birdstone and Eurosilver.

The card recovers quickly with a Turf so strong that last year's odds-on winner, High Chaparral, is only the fourth choice. Storming Home and Sulamani, who crossed the wire in that order in the Arlington Million and subsequently posted impressive victories, meet again with not much between them while facing four-time Group 1 winner Falbrav as well. Sulamani gets a slight edge here for superior form at today's 12-furlong distance, but any edge is wafer-thin.

The Classic is less than its name suggests without Mineshaft, Candy Ride, and Empire Maker, but it's as open a betting race as could be. Medaglia d'Oro is the best horse at nine furlongs, but he has to get 10 here and he's only 1 for 5 beyond 1 1/8 miles. Ten Most Wanted gets a timid vote because he's young and improving and will thrive at the distance.

Almost everyone else has a shot but also a drawback. Perfect Drift beat Mineshaft once but hasn't been breathtaking beating up on softer recently. Pleasantly Perfect and Dynever keep threatening to turn into really good horses but haven't won anything important yet. Congaree is as tough as they come but shaky at the distance. Funny Cide is talented and popular but he has been away for 83 days.

Then there's Volponi, 0 for 7 since shocking last year's Classic at 43-1, but if a horse does something once he can do it again. This field is no tougher than last year's, and if Volponi does what he did at Arlington a year ago, it could be deja vu all over again, this time at a mere 20-1.