FREEDOM RINGS

Joey Tran innocently walked up to Freedom Crest, reaching forward to pat the gelding's beefy neck. It was a simple gesture, a display of praise from an owner to his beloved horse. It was not a good idea.

Freedom Crest lashed out like a cobra, ears pinned and teeth fully bared. Tran, to his credit, dodged the bullet...narrowly. Yet he couldn't blame the big guy. Lately, Freedom Crest has been preying upon all things human, but on Oct. 7, the 5-year-old son of To Freedom did some damage where it counted, sinking his teeth into Tiznow and Skimming in the $488,000 Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II) at nine furlongs.

As expected, Skimming led the way in the Goodwood. The first quarter, accomplished in a quick :22.30, was his alone, but as the son of Nureyev pushed through a half in :45.53, the pressure began to build. But it wasn't Tiznow who had decided to raise the stakes. Instead, the early challenge came from Freedom Crest. Cruising along under new rider Kent Desormeaux, Freedom Crest hounded Skimming into the stretch and had enough in the tank to win by a length. The final time was 1:48.86.

Freedom Crest certainly had the bettors confused. He returned $80. But it was Tiznow's uncharacteristic lack of energy that left most fans bewildered. The Cee's Tizzy colt seemed to spark up just before the wire, and galloping out, he looked like a million bucks. Back in the jockeys' room, Chris McCarron could only shake his head.

"He isn't showing anything we're accustomed to seeing," he said. "No speed, no fight, no desire. He galloped around the track today and finished third. Most horses, if they galloped around there like that, they would have been beaten 10, 12 lengths, maybe more. I don't know how to look at it. I'm baffled."

For former claimer Freedom Crest, the Goodwood was a vindication of sorts, proof his victory in January's San Pasqual Handicap (gr. II) and his ability to compete at the top level are both legitimate.

"The only thing you can say is he got the weight," said trainer Richard Baltas, noting that some skeptics were weighing Freedom Crest's 116-pound impost against Tiznow's 124 and Skimming's 123.

"We know one thing about him," Baltas said. "We know he's got a big heart. And you know he's not afraid of anybody the way he's been trying to kill everybody. He belongs with the best horses on his day."

Freedom Crest is owned by Tran and his brother, Calvin Nguyen. As teenagers, the two frequented nearby Los Alamitos Race Course, gradually making a hobby out of horse racing. Their diversion soon became an investment when the brothers decided to dive in as owners. They hooked up with Baltas and got their hands on their first horse, a maiden colt, for just $32,000. His name was Freedom Crest.

They weren't expecting much, especially after watching Freedom Crest lose his next two races by a combined 25 lengths. Now, Freedom Crest's Goodwood miracle may have earned him a trip to New York--and a ticket into the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I). Baltas was guarded when put to the question, opting to wait and see if the Goodwood was the peak of Freedom Crest's current power. Tran, however, couldn't quite get past the thrill of the moment.

"Right now, I don't know what to say," Tran said, watching Freedom Crest rip through his hayrack. "I'm speechless. I can't believe it."

THE ROYAL MILE

For Alex Solis, last year's Sprint triumph with Kona Gold brought utter satisfaction and snapped an ugly 0-for-Breeders' Cup skid in the process. Jose Valdivia Jr., on the other hand, has seen Breeders' Cup action just once thus far, finishing a strong third in the Sprint aboard Big Jag back in '99.

But 2001 has been a breakthrough year for the young jockey, and after Val Royal's two-length smasher in the $219,000 Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IIT) on Oct. 7, Valdivia may just find himself back at the Breeders' Cup.

Still riding the excitement of last week's Oak Leaf Stakes, his first grade I win, Valdivia fashioned a polished ride in the Mile. He kept Val Royal well out of it early, then started to rev the engine leaving the backstretch. When Valdivia finally cut him loose at the top of the stretch, it was over. Val Royal sped past Thady Quill and I've Decided, clocking a brisk 1:33.21 over a course that plays like the Autobahn these days.

Trained by Julio Canani, Val Royal debuted in the States like a superstar in the making when he won the Del Mar Derby (gr. IIT) two years ago. A litany of problems has hindered any progression. He's started just twice since then. When he does show up, though, enjoy the view.

"He just ran out of his mind," Valdivia said. "He's somethin' else, this horse."

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