10/27/2004 11:00PM

Top honor the prize in Classic

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There have been Breeders' Cups with fuller fields and more guaranteed Hall of Famers than this 21st edition, but it is hard to think of one where more was at stake. Almost every championship in the sport, equine and human, will be determined by what happens Saturday at Lone Star, where a solid day of divisional showdowns will culminate in a deep and intriguing Classic that will crown the Horse of the Year.

The Distaff lacks most of the nation's best older fillies in the absence of Azeri, Sightseek, Adoration, and Star Parade, but will decide the 3-year-old filly championship among Ashado, Society Selection, and Stellar Jayne. The race comes down to those three and the 4-year-olds Island Fashion and Storm Flag Flying, and I prefer those two in that order. Island Fashion did some remarkable things earlier this year, showing brilliance from seven furlongs to 1 1/4 miles, and she returned from a summer freshening with a sneaky-good comeback in the Lady's Secret.

The Juvenile Fillies may be the most wide-open race on the card, with 11 plausible winners in a field of 13, but the one who has made the strongest impression is Sweet Catomine, whose sustained wide rally winning the Oak Leaf was reminiscent of a runaway locomotive. Sense of Style, unbeaten without being fully extended until a tough trip in the Alcibiades, deserves another chance. The European maiden Mona Lisa is an interesting longshot, but so are a bunch of others.

The Mile is the usual guessing game, and in the absence of a dominant or consistent American, it usually pays to go with the European milers. Six Perfections, the defending champion, has not won since last year's Mile and returns amid some questions about her current form but can easily win again. So can Whipper, who outfinished Six Perfections fair and square in France this summer. Artie Schiller might have the best closing kick of the Americans in a race where Soaring Free and Special Ring should ensure a lively pace.

The Sprint may have a vulnerable favorite in Speightstown, who has yet to show he can sustain Grade 1 pace pressure, which there's plenty of in this field. Midas Eyes should get a good stalking trip just off the speed from the outside post and is taken to hold off Kela, Clock Stopper, and Champali down the stretch. Cajun Beat, the defending champion, could surprise again on his best day, but his recent form is subpar.

The day's heaviest favorite should be Ouija Board in the Filly and Mare Turf. A repeat of her victories in the English and Irish Oaks and her fine third-place finish in the Arc de Triomphe would make her a clear winner over this field. Wonder Again is the best of the Americans, and if she runs as well as she did in the Diana, she won't be worse than second. Film Maker, stuck behind molasses paces in her last two, could outrun her odds for a minor award at a big price.

The Juvenile, a dismal event a year ago when the nation's top 2-year-olds skipped it, this time drew the winners of the Norfolk and Breeders' Futurity and the top three from the Champagne. Roman Ruler has brilliant raw talent, but his Norfolk was unimpressive and it's not clear that route racing will be his forte. Proud Accolade, Afleet Alex, and Sun King all ran well finishing in that order in the Champagne and all are eligible to improve. I'll take Afleet Alex, who showed brilliance in the Sanford, character in the Hopeful, and the ability to stretch out in the Champagne.

The Turf for a change has an American favorite in Kitten's Joy, perhaps the best stateside 3-year-old on grass we have seen since Manila. He is the likeliest winner in what looks like a three-horse race among him, Powerscourt, and Magistretti, but Magistretti may offer better betting value. He was dazzling winning the Man o' War two starts back, and may not have fired his best shot when second to Kitten's Joy in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, chasing the pace from the outset instead of relaxing early and uncorking his flying finish.

That brings us to the Classic, where six of the 13 entrants can stake a claim to Horse of the Year honors with a victory. The key factor could be the 1 1/4-mile distance, which will probably trip up Roses in May and the misplaced Azeri and could also stop the fastest horse, Ghostzapper. It's the right distance for Funny Cide, a Kentucky Derby and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner, and Birdstone, the underappreciated Belmont and Travers winner, and both of them should run well here.

Pleasantly Perfect should run even better. His victories over Medaglia d'Oro in last year's Classic and this year's Dubai World Cup, and his Pacific Classic triumph in August, stamp him the world's best horse at 10 furlongs on the dirt. This is not a simple game, but sometimes taking the best horse at the right distance is as complicated as it needs to be.