09/30/2002 11:00PM

Stepping-stones to Cup

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Five times the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships has been run in what is considered the Midwest, and in every one of those years the event was held at Churchill Downs.

During those years (1988, 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000), prep races at Keeneland Race Course frequently took on a significance of a slightly higher degree. Horsemen seeking a prep before Churchill often settled on Keeneland, which is only 75 miles from Louisville and served a useful purpose in terms of logistics and acclimation.

This year, with Arlington Park poised to host the Midwest's first Breeders' Cup races outside of Churchill, a handful of stakes at Keeneland - which opens a 17-day fall meet Friday - once again appear to be among the most important of a slew of key Breeders' Cup preps held throughout the country over the next two weekends.

Keeneland racing secretary Ben Huffman acknowledged that the relative proximity of Arlington probably is underscoring the prospective depth and quality of opening weekend, when six Breeders' Cup preps will be run over three days.

"It does matter to some horsemen, being closer to where the Breeders' Cup will be run," said Huffman. "In some people's minds, the travel and climate are important considerations before they settle on a final prep.

"On the other hand, you do have some people who are going to shop for the easiest spot, period. They could care less."

Huffman speculated that several of the Breeders' Cup hopefuls scheduled to compete here on opening weekend could have run elsewhere, but ran here because Keeneland is a mere six-hour van ride from Chicago. Among the horses that Huffman said had alluring choices elsewhere were Atlantic Ocean, who will run Friday in the $400,000 Alcibiades Stakes; Sky Mesa, who figures to be a heavy favorite in the $400,000 Lane's End Breeders' Futurity on Saturday; and Victory Ride and Dancethruthedawn, major contenders in the $500,000 Spinster Stakes on Sunday.

"Obviously a lot of things come into play, like the amount of money we're giving away here and a trainer like Bob Baffert needing to keep all his young horses separated," said Huffman. "But I really believe there is some merit to running here because we're in the Midwest."

Whatever the reasons, the races during what Keeneland is calling "FallStars Weekend" appear to be critical indeed toward the Oct. 26 Breeders' Cup. A brief rundown:

- Grade 2, $500,000 WinStar Galaxy (Friday): The three likely favorites - Affluent, Voodoo Dancer, and Surya - were scheduled to arrive by plane here Tuesday. Other fillies and mares likely for the 1 3/16-mile turf race include Esyoueffcee, Magic Mission, Snow Dance, Verruma, and perhaps another one or two starters.

Two years ago, when the Breeders' Cup races were run at Churchill, the Galaxy produced Perfect Sting and Tout Charmant, who finished one-two in the BC Filly and Mare Turf.

- Grade 2, $400,000 Walmac International Alcibiades (Friday): Atlantic Ocean, an impressive winner of the Kentucky Cup Juvenile Fillies, figures as the favorite over Caucus and Final Round in the 1 1/16-mile Alcibiades. Other probables are Black Heart, Let Just Do It, Midnight Cry, Ruby's Reception, Sand Springs, and Westerly Breeze.

During the five years Churchill had the Breeders' Cup, the Alcibiades produced 16 starters for the BC Juvenile Fillies, including 1998 winner Silverbulletday.

* Grade 2, $400,000 Lane's End Breeders' Futurity (Saturday): Sky Mesa and Lone Star Sky, two of the country's top juveniles, square off in this 1 1/16-mile showdown. Sky Mesa will put his 2-for-2 record on the line against Lone Star Sky, who has won 3 of 4 starts.

Other 2-year-olds looking to advance to the BC Juvenile are Private Gold, Tito's Beau, Truckle Feature, and maybe one or two more.

The Breeders' Futurity yielded 10 Juvenile starters during the last four Churchill Breeders' Cups, including 1998 winner Answer Lively.

- Grade 3, $250,000 Phoenix Breeders' Cup (Saturday): Two of the top candidates for the BC Sprint, Orientate and Xtra Heat, should make for an extremely interesting renewal of the six-furlong Phoenix. Their presence will limit the field to just a few other starters, including Makors Mark, Rio Oro, and Touch Tone.

The Phoenix was ungraded for years and has had a lesser impact on the Breeders' Cup than other Keeneland preps. The best finish in a Churchill BC by a Phoenix starter was Bet on Sunshine, third in 2000.

- Grade 1, $500,000 Overbrook Spinster (Sunday): There are at least four BC candidates prepping in the 1 1/8-mile Spinster: Dancethruthedawn, Take Charge Lady, Victory Ride, and You. At least three other fillies and mares are likely to run, including Atelier, Lakenheath, and Printemps.

The Spinster long has been Keeneland's most productive BC prep. During the Churchill years, fillies and mares who ran back in the Distaff include Winning Colors (second, 1988), Banshee Breeze (second, 1998), and Spain (first, 2000).

- Grade 1, $600,000 Shadwell Keeneland Turf Mile (Sunday): The richest of the FallStars races will have Beat Hollow, winner of the Arlington Million in his last start, as the favorite in a terrific field. The opposition is expected to include Balto Star, Freefourinternet, Landseer, North East Bound, Quiet Resolve, Startac, and Touch of the Blues.