10/26/2001 12:00AM

Team With Anticipation enjoys the ride


ELMONT, N.Y. - A dry sense of humor is never far from the surface when George Strawbridge Jr. and Jonathan Sheppard reflect on With Anticipation and his rise through the American turf division this year.

By most standards, With Anticipation should be running in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday at Belmont Park and not 30 minutes earlier in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf. He has a pedigree that fits on the main track - by Relaunch out of Fran's Valentine, a Kentucky Oaks winner - and the credentials, including a third in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Handicap in 2000.

But earlier this year, the 6-year-old With Anticipation switched surfaces, a desperate move at the time that has left Strawbridge and Sheppard stunned by its success.

"If I was a better trainer, I would have run him on the grass before I did," said Sheppard, 60, a member of racing's Hall of Fame.

Strawbridge, 64, who won the 1994 Breeders' Cup Turf with Tikkanen, has his own take on With Anticipation.

"We can't quite seem to get a dirt horse," said Strawbridge, who has bred or raced more than 80 stakes winners. "All we do is end up on the turf."

For Sheppard, a dry wit helps him cope with an unlucky run in the Breeders' Cup in the last 16 years.

In 1985, the Sheppard-trained Storm Cat finished second by a nose to Tasso in the Juvenile at Aqueduct. As a result, Storm Cat missed out on the 2-year-old championship. He was later sent to stud by owner William T. Young, who rewarded Sheppard with a lifetime breeding share. Storm Cat is now among the world's top stallions and commands as much as $500,000 per cover.

"How can you equate that with winning the race?" Sheppard said, reflecting on the 1985 Juvenile loss. "I think I would give it all back to have trained a Breeders' Cup winner and an Eclipse champion."

In the mid-1990's, Sheppard trained the Strawbridge-owned Alice Springs, a filly who finished fifth in the 1994 Mile and seventh in the 1995 Turf. She raced before the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf was initiated in 1999.

Sheppard is hoping for a dose of luck this weekend, for a change, when With Anticipation starts in the Turf.

With Anticipation's recent form has been remarkable. The front-running gelding won two of New York's top turf marathons this year - the Grade 1 Sword Dancer Handicap at Saratoga on Aug. 11 and the Grade 1 Man o' War Stakes on Sept. 8.

Last fall, racing on dirt, his best result was a win in the minor Creme Fraiche Handicap at The Meadowlands, the last of his two stakes wins on that surface.

After With Anticipation finished ninth in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Handicap last March, Sheppard tried him on the turf with nothing to lose. With Anticipation had been third in an allowance race on turf at Delaware Park in 1998, but it did little at the time to inspire the trainer. At Keeneland in April, Sheppard found an allowance race for horses that had never won on turf.

"Sometimes those are trap races, and you might run into a horse that ran in the Derby or something," Sheppard said. "But he won rather impressively. I thought he's trying to tell us something."

In early June, With Anticipation followed that race with a six-length win in the Louisville Handicap at Churchill Downs. Then, he was disqualified from first to second in the Grade 1 United Nations Handicap at Monmouth Park on July 1 for causing interference in deep stretch.

Victories in the Sword Dancer and Man o' War Stakes followed.

"No horse has passed the post in front of him on the turf this year," Sheppard said.

By far, 2001 has been With Anticipation's most successful campaign. He has earned $802,393 of his lifetime total of $1,133,504. The switch in surface has been the key, Sheppard said.

"I think it's a combination of the horse being more comfortable and more sound than he was when he was younger," he said. "He's gained confidence in himself and matured physically and mentally.

"He had a strong aversion to getting dirt in his face. That's why his form was so inconsistent. He did run some pretty good races on the dirt, enough to keep you thinking he's making a good living and earning us some money. But we have so many grass horses in the stable."

The success led to some good-natured kidding between Sheppard and Strawbridge. Strawbridge reminded Sheppard that he was a turf trainer. Sheppard chided Strawbridge for being a turf breeder. Everyone else in the sport wishes they were as successful.

Sheppard and Strawbridge have been a team for more than 30 years, dating back to a time when both were at the start of their careers in American steeplechasing. Sheppard, a Briton, was launching a racing stable; Strawbridge was eagerly looking for prospects to own and ride in point-to-point chases.

"I didn't have any direction," Strawbridge said. "Jonathan said I brought these horses over here from England to make jumpers out of them. They have two prices - a higher price if you take them out of the stable and lower if you leave them here. I didn't have any professional advice or trainers, so we started out with those and we did well."

Sheppard has become synonymous with American steeplechasing, leading the trainers in that division in money earnings for 17 consecutive years until 1991. He has won the title five times since, most recently in 1999.

Strawbridge's stable grew to include 60 broodmares and became primarily a flat racing operation. He still keeps several jumpers, including Pompeyo, the winner of the Sport of Kings Challenge at Keeneland last April and a contender for the Eclipse Award.

But for now With Anticipation is the favorite for both owner and trainer. A gray gelding, With Anticipation starts with a chance to win Saturday's Turf, a race that a year ago seemed an unlikely destination.