10/24/2004 11:00PM

Two must-see races: Turf, Classic

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NEW YORK - Every one of the eight Breeders' Cup races Saturday at Lone Star Park is critical in terms of what it can do for reputations, championships, and breeding value. Nevertheless, everyone has one or two races that they are aching to see just a little bit more than the others.

For me, it's a tie between the Turf and the Classic. The Turf is of special interest because of Kitten's Joy, who is on the brink of becoming a superstar. He will earn that distinction with a win Saturday, even in the face of our reluctance as a racing nation to bestow such acclaim on a turf horse because of our long-standing predisposition to dirt racing.

Consider this: How many times would we even think about entertaining an argument for a turf specialist such as Kitten's Joy to be champion 3-year-old, especially in a year when a colt such as Smarty Jones was sensational winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and came so close to sweeping the elusive Triple Crown?

But, Kitten's Joy has many thinking just that. With one tremendous performance after another, Kitten's Joy has demanded his case at least be heard. He is the best American-based 3-year-old turf horse at least since Sunshine Forever, who in 1988 earned a divisional championship over older horses.

With success Saturday, Kitten's Joy can one-up Sunshine Forever because Sunshine Forever was a narrowly beaten second in the 1988 Turf. A victory by Kitten's Joy would send us to the record books in search of a suitable comparison.

As for the Classic, any race that has as many as six potential starters who, with a victory, could clinch Horse of the Year, is special. Pleasantly Perfect, Ghostzapper, Roses in May, Birdstone, Azeri (if she runs here instead of the Distaff), and even Funny Cide could all lay claim to Horse of the Year with a victory. A win would complete a perfect season for Ghostzapper or Roses in May, and that it was achieved at the expense of the other five would likely make for a true consensus champion.

Just because the Turf and the Classic may have a little more pizzazz for me doesn't mean that the rest of the Breeders' Cup races are on a par with the third at Aqueduct. Assuming Azeri goes in the Distaff - the vast majority of racing people hope she does because even if she ran the race of her life, the best she could do in the Classic is collect a minor share - it will be an important moment. Love her, as so many do, or respect her, as I have learned to do, Azeri is a multiple champion and sure-fire Hall of Famer, and Saturday will likely be her last race.

Also, the Distaff will be important because the performances of such 3-year-olds as Society Selection, Ashado, and Stellar Jayne will go a long way toward determining the quality and depth of next year's older filly and mare division.

The Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies will be interesting because it will tell us whether this group of 2-year-old fillies is as closely matched as the Beyer Speed Figures suggest, or if there is indeed one who stands out. Nine of the fillies in this race earned between an 86 and a 91 Beyer in their last two races. A mere five-point Beyer gap among nearly three-quarters of the field suggests the possibility that there will be fewer than three lengths between the first and ninth finishers Saturday.

Anyone who watched Sweet Catomine win the Oak Leaf, however, has a good reason to believe that it doesn't matter what Beyer she earned for that performance (for the record, it was an 89). Anyone who saw Sweet Catomine win the Oak Leaf probably believes that she is an Amazon against little girls in this Juvenile Fillies.

In the Juvenile, there is one sign that almost everyone should be looking for - whether this is the year the winner of the Juvenile will go on to be a meaningful factor, let alone win, the Kentucky Derby. Of course, this ignores the possibility that by looking for a Derby horse in the Juvenile everyone is looking in the wrong place. There is an obvious connection between the Derby and 1 1/8-mile prep races that precede the Derby by three, four, or even a few more weeks. But, there is no link whatsoever between a 1 1/16-mile race for 2-year-olds in late October and a 1 1/4-mile race for 3-year-olds on the first Saturday of May. One race is an apple, the other an orange.

At the same time, the Juvenile can tell us something about the relative strength of the coming 3-year-old class. The Juvenile will be the first time a top West Coast-based member of this crop (Roman Ruler) will face his counterparts from the East (Proud Accolade, Afleet Alex). The Juvenile again may not tell us who next year's Kentucky Derby winner will be, but by giving us an indication as to which region's 2-year-olds are better, it could give us a good idea of where to begin looking.