Countdown to the Cup: Future Book Follies

With a rare slow weekend coming up, this is a perfect time to search out some live future book horses who are available at generous prices.

CLASSIC: The forgotten horses in the Classic will no doubt be Running Stag, who will go into the race off two poor performances and a 2 1/2-month layoff, and Golden Missile, who will be taking the easier route, via the Kentucky Cup Classic and Hawthorne Gold Cup, and will not have the press he did back in the spring. But both these hard-hitting veterans are capable of beating anyone on their best day, and they should show up at Churchill Downs in peak form.

The real live horse in the Classic who will be totally ignored is Running Stag. Right now, you can get him at a generous 30-1 at Bally's. Some of the off-shore facilities aren't even listing him. If there was one thing this remarkable 6-year-old needed it was a nice, relaxing vacation, and that's what he's had. Each time he's come to America, it was a slam-bang visit, and each time he made his presence felt. The first time he came, in the fall of '98, he finished third in the Woodward behind Skip Away and Gentlemen, and fourth in the Clark Handicap, beaten only 1 1/2 lengths by Silver Charm. He returned in the spring of '99, and after being narrowly beaten by Behrens in the Massachusetts Handicap, he turned in a brilliant performance, winning the Brooklyn Handicap by 7 1/2 lengths in a scorching 1:46 1/5 for the 1 1/8 miles. Back he came in late summer, winning the Saratoga BC Handicap, defeating Golden Missile, before finishing fourth, beaten 1 3/4 lengths in the Woodward.

This year, he showed up again in the spring, winning an allowance race at Belmont and the MassCap by 1 1/4 lengths. But, because he was not remaining in this country, he could stay only 30 days, and trainer Phil Mitchell tried to cram in three starts. Despite winning the MassCap only 10 days after his allowance score, he came back in the Brooklyn eight days later. It finally caught up to him, and he tired after pressing the early pace.

Back he came in the summer on his ninth transatlantic journey. He had a terrible trip in the Whitney, being forced to steady on the clubhouse turn and finishing fourth. Mitchell had dreamed of running in the Arlington Million and changed course, putting Running Stag back on the turf. He looked a like a winner nearing the quarter pole after tracking the pace, but got rubber-legged over the soft course and tired.

Shipped back to New York, the horse was wiped out, and Mitchell decided to back off and give him some much-needed R&R. After all, here was a horse who had made nine transatlantic trips, as well as two trips to Dubai and one to Hong Kong.

Now, for the first time in his career, he was remaining the United States. Under the care of assistant Roger Teal, Running Stag was given two weeks off doing absolutely nothing. He then started walking daily, and soon was walking an hour every morning and 40 minutes in the afternoon, while grazing each afternoon. He returned to the track last Saturday and has been trotting daily. He'll canter until the end of September, then will have a month of training to get ready for the Classic.

"Roger says he looks fabulous," Mitchell said. "Even other trainers have seen him and said, 'The Stag is back.' We'll let the others knock their heads together in the Gold Cup. I've always tried to buck the system, but I've seen the American philosophy of training and I've now adapted it. You set your goal and go for it. That's what we're doing. We've got two races left for him, the Breeders' Cup and then the Cigar Mile."

So, here's what you'll have going for you at 30-1 and higher: A fresh horse for the first time in his life; a horse whose best Beyer Speed Figures of 118 (in the Brooklyn), 117 (in the MassCap), 116 (in the Saratoga BC) and 116 (in his second in the MassCap) are equal to, if not actually slightly better than, Lemon Drop Kid, Behrens, Fusaichi Pegasus, and Golden Missile; and a horse who has either defeated or been right there with Skip Away, Gentlemen, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Behrens, and Gold Missile. He's also shown the ability to decimate his opposition, run fast times, and gut it out in the trenches. If he has a good month of training, he could be a force to reckon with on Breeders' Cup Day.

Although the odds on Golden Missile might seem kind of low in the 8-1 to 10-1 range, he actually could be an overlay, considering Lemon Drop Kid is 2-1 and Fusaichi Pegasus 3-1 at Bally's. The son of A.P. Indy, who is as high as 15-1 at some off-shore facilities, was ranked right at the top of division in the spring and early summer, defeating Lemon Drop Kid fair and square in the Pimlico Special, but a nasty foot bruise, which turned into an infection, compromised his chances in the Whitney.

A close look at the foot in late August revealed the extent of the bruise, as a good portion of the hoof had been cut away. The horse was forced to work in an egg bar shoe, which allows much less traction. He returned in the Kentucky Cup Classic and ran a huge race to Captain Steve. He fought hard through the stretch and was coming back at the winner in the closing stages, while finishing well clear of Early Pioneer in third. Instead of knocking him out in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which has produced only two Classic winners in the past 16 years, Joe Orseno will ship him for the Hawthorne Gold Cup. The Stronach stable used the Hawthorne Gold Cup as a springboard to victory by Awesome Again in '98, and Golden Missile came off a nose defeat in the race last year to finish a close third in the Classic at 75-1. What all this means is that Golden Missile could be in peak form for the Classic, and he's shown what he's capable of doing when he's in peak form.

So, those are your two live price horses in the Future Book. Of course, we very well could be dealing with a freak in Fusaichi Pegasus, but he still hasn't faced older horses, and you will be getting excellent value on both of them.

And then there is the enigmatic Cat Thief. Although it might seem that last year's Classic winner is totally unpredictable, other than the fact that he hardly ever wins, his case actually is quite simple. The colt has a tendency to displace his soft palate, and that is usually brought about when he has to struggle over a racetrack he doesn't like. Whenever you see a horrible performance from him, that likely is the reason. In the Kentucky Cup Classic, he did bleed slightly, which is another result of his inability to handle the track. Some horses just won't run over a track they dislike, but Cat Thief knows only know one thing: to run as hard and as far as he can. So, there's always the possibility you can catch him on a track that loves, like Gulfstream and Saratoga (in the Whitney). As for Churchill, in three starts, he was third in the Kentucky Derby, Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and Stephen Foster, so he obviously does like this track and has at least been consistent over it.

On Saturday, Commendable squares off against Tiznow in the Super Derby, with Mass Market and Kiss a Native definite threats. Tiznow is improving rapidly, and turned in a big effort against Skimming in the Pacific Classic. The half-brother to Cinderella horse Budroyale is a big, strong horse and bears watching.

Captain Steve showed his victory in the Kentucky Cup Classic took little out of him, as he blazed 5 furlongs at Santa Anita Wednesday in :58 2/5. He'll run next in the Goodwood Handicap.

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