21 Days and Counting
by Ray Paulick
Date Posted: 10/10/2006 11:33:26 AM

Ray Paulick
Editor-in-Chief

If you didn't find something to like at Belmont Park, Keeneland, or the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita Park over the weekend of Oct. 7-8, you must not like horse racing. What a spectacular series of performances on dirt, turf, and over Keeneland's new Polytrack surface!

For the most part, the betting favorites ran their races, setting the stage for some titanic match-ups in the Breeders' Cup World Championships at Churchill Downs Nov. 4. The headliner that day will be the $5-million Breeders' Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I), with budding 3-year-old superstar Bernardini taking on former claimer Lava Man.

With New York-based Bernardini the winner in six of his seven starts and California-stabled Lava Man a perfect seven-for-seven in 2006, this figures to be the best Classic match-up since Skip Away squared off against Silver Charm and a host of other talented runners in 1998 at Churchill Downs.

These two combatants provide much more than just an East vs. West rivalry. Bernardini races for the mighty Darley Stable of Dubai's Sheikh Mohammed. The son of A.P. Indy, out of the grade I-winning Quiet American mare Cara Rafaela, will be one of the most exciting and sought-after stallions in years when he enters stud for the sheikh as early as 2007.

Lava Man is a gelded son of Slew City Slew, a very useful but not very commercially successful son of Seattle Slew. Lava Man was a $50,000 claim in 2004 by Phoenix real estate developer Steve Kenly, his father, David, and Southern Californian Jason Wood. While Sheikh Mohammed owns and operates one of the world's largest racing and breeding operations, Lava Man's owners still get a kick out of moving a $32,000 claim up to $50,000. And there's not a thing wrong with that.

Bernardini will be the favorite, based on his devastating string of performances that first gained attention in the Preakness (gr. I), a race many still recall with horror because of the injury sustained by Barbaro. Bernardini's Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) victory looked like the perfect prep.

But the Breeders' Cup will offer a much stiffer test than anything Bernardini has seen, especially if Lava Man can carry his form out of state (he was trounced in all three of his non-California races in 2005). Brother Derek, who finished second behind Lava Man in the Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II), appears to be back on his game and could give Bernardini a run for his money.

In other divisions, English Channel made short work of his rivals in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational Stakes (gr. IT), but he'll have a much tougher time taking on Europe's best in the John Deere Turf (gr. IT). Irish-bred Aragorn continued his domination of West Coast turf milers in the Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile Stakes (gr. IIT), though he may have to step it up another level to win the NetJets Mile (gr. IT), especially if the Coolmore connections of European star George Washington opt for this race instead of the Classic. A new shooter for the Mile, Aussie Rules, looked very good winning the Shadwell Turf Mile (gr. IT) at Keeneland, giving Coolmore and trainer Aidan O'Brien a pair of aces.

Fleet Indian continued her 2006 unbeaten streak with a hard-fought victory in the Beldame Stakes (gr. I), making her the probable choice in the Emirates Airline Distaff (gr. I). Asi Siempre, winner of the Juddmonte Spinster Stakes (gr. I), transferred her good turf form to Polytrack. Will that form hold up on the dirt track at Churchill Downs?

Henny Hughes looked sensational winning the Vosburgh Stakes (gr. I), and so did Bordonaro in his Ancient Title Breeders' Cup Stakes (gr. I) win. The latter, however, will have to be supplemented to the TVG Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) if he wants to lay claim to an Eclipse Award.

That's what the Breeders' Cup is all about -- claiming championships. Three weeks until D-Day.

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