08/23/2002 12:00AM

Sunday is this trio's Breeders' Cup

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DEL MAR, Calif. - It is not often that a $1 million race is a prep to a $250,000 race. But Sunday's six-figure Pacific Classic could be a prelude to a start in the California Cup Classic in November for Sky Jack and Grey Memo.

Both Sky Jack and Grey Memo are among the nation's top 50 money earners this year, but neither is nominated to the Breeders' Cup. The situation makes the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Arlington Park on Oct. 26 an unrealistic goal considering the staggering supplemental payments.

So such races as the $1 million Pacific Classic take on added significance for Grey Memo and Sky Jack, who along with Speedy Pick, are attempting to become the fifth California-bred to win Del Mar's richest race.

The Pacific Classic marks the last chance that those three will have at a $1 million purse this year without shipping out of state.

Neither Grey Memo nor Sky Jack can be dismissed, while Speedy Pick will be a longshot. Speedy Pick won an allowance race/optional claimer at Hollywood Park on July 20 and is still eligible for a second condition allowance race.

Both Sky Jack and Grey Memo are coming off graded stakes wins and are in the best form of their careers. They will need to be against the speedy War Emblem, the nation's top

3-year-old and the Pacific Classic favorite.

Sky Jack vaulted into the national picture with his front-running win in the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on July 14, the richest race the 6-year-old gelding has won for owner-breeders Rene and Margie Lambert.

Initially, trainer Doug O'Neill, who has a very influential role in the gelding's racing schedule, was reluctant to commit Sky Jack to the Pacific Classic, but changed his mind in early August.

"I try to take a conservative route," O'Neill said. "I thought the Gold Cup would have knocked him out. I didn't think we'd have time to be ready. The last two works have indicated that he's ready to go."

A winner of 8 of 14 starts and $929,267, the 6-year-old Sky Jack is starting in his second $1 million race in the Pacific Classic. A year ago, he was recovering from knee surgery and colic surgery that nearly cost him his life.

He did not return to the races until Feb. 9 where he finished second in an allowance race.

On March 2, he finished last of 14 in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, a performance that O'Neill blamed on himself because of the quick turnaround.

A more patient approach has been used since then, resulting in wins in the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup.

O'Neill says that the $480,000 supplement for the Breeders' Cup Classic would not be money well spent, and that the California Cup Classic is more logical with the Dubai World Cup a long-term possibility. Sky Jack won the 2000 California Cup Classic, his first stakes win.

"So many things can go wrong for one race," O'Neill said. "I think if everything went well, we'd look at the race in Dubai."

Meanwhile trainer Warren Stute has always taken a realistic point of view about Grey Memo's ability. The Breeders' Cup is not even on Stute's radar or on that of owners Pat Thompson, Ron Manzani, and Russell Sarno.

"I'd rather doubt it, even if he was eligible," Stute said.

The point of view did not change after Grey Memo won the San Diego Handicap on Aug. 4.

Instead, Stute has the California Cup and a return trip to Dubai, where the 5-year-old Grey Memo won the $1 million Godolphin Mile last March, as an alternative.

"Hopefully, we'll stay sound, but a lot of things enter into it," Stute said.