Aidan O'Brien, trains Dylan Thomas.

Aidan O'Brien, trains Dylan Thomas.

Anne M. Eberhardt

Countdown to the Cup: No Doubting Thomas

The wheels have been turning at Ballydoyle. The decision to send group I Irish Derby and Irish Champion winner Dylan Thomas to Belmont for the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) is a departure from their normal strategy. But they have done it before, and it is understandable why they would want to try a different approach.

Their reasoning can be summed up in three words –- Galileo, Hawk Wing, and Oratorio, all top-class colts who ran in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) without a prep on dirt and made little or no impact on the race. This time, it is apparent that Coolmore does not want to play Russian roulette on the world stage. They want to know if their barrel is loaded or not.

They almost pulled it off in 2000 with Giant's Causeway , who ran a sensational race in the Classic, just getting beat a neck by Tiznow . Coolmore also was successful right off the plane with Johannesburg, who beat a strong field of 2-year-olds in the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), so they've seen the successes and failures of trying the dirt for the first time without knowing how their horse is going to handle it.

However, it must be noted that both Giant's Causeway and Johannesburg were bred more for the dirt than the turf. In addition, Giant's Causeway was a miler who was able stretch out to a mile and a quarter and use his speed effectively, while the other three were 10-furlong and 12-furlong horses, just as Dylan Thomas is. They, unlike Giant's Causeway, either did not handle the dirt or simply did not have his kind of speed to be competitive against the Americans.

Dylan Thomas is a noticeably better horse on fast ground, and in his best races, he has been right up near the pace and was able to kick into another gear. He has shown the ability to quicken away from his field, as he did in the Irish Derby, and has shown his willingness to dig down and fight, as he did in the English Derby (Eng-I) and Irish Champion Stakes. In the latter, he was headed by Ouija Board after tracking the pace, but battled back to win. In his fourth-place finish in the Juddmonte International (Eng-I), he seemed uncomfortable on the softer ground and never dropped his head and leveled off, running one-paced the length of the stretch. His only other poor effort came at Doncaster last fall over heavy ground. And it is good to remember, he is two-for-two sprinting.

If Dylan Thomas does run big in the Gold Cup, many will feel that he should remain here and ship to Churchill Downs to prepare for the Classic. But that is not trainer Aidan O'Brien's style, and it is unlikely he would do that.

And for good reason. We all know that Europeans are most effective right off the plane, and, if kept here, often regress in their second start.

O'Brien has already applied the two-trip strategy in 2003, with Hold That Tiger, who ran a huge race in the Woodward, finishing second in fast time behind eventual Horse of the Year Mineshaft . But when he returned to America for the Classic, he made a threatening move on the turn only to flatten out in the stretch, finishing fifth. That, however, could very well have been attributed to the colt simply not being as proficient at 1 1/4 miles. And O'Brien admitted he learned a lot from that experience.

Last year, Coolmore ran Ace in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (gr. IT), and after his strong third-place finish, sent him back for the John Deere Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT). This time, he ran even better, finishing second to Shirocco at odds of 16-1 and beating out fellow European stars Azamour and Bago.

Another horse that should be mentioned is Tikkanen, who won the 1994 Turf Classic for trainer Jonathan Pease, returned to France, and then came back to win the Breeders' Cup Turf, also at odds of 16-1.

As for Dylan Thomas' pedigree, his female family is predominantly grass. His sire, Danehill, rarely has a horse on the dirt, but he is by Danzig, out of a His Majesty mare, whose dam is by Buckpasser, so he has strong dirt influences throughout his male line, and there is no reason why he shouldn't be able to sire a horse who can handle dirt.

Strong case against Lawyer Ron

Strong Contender took advantage of Lawyer Ron's over-aggressiveness in the Super Derby (gr. II) to wear down the 4-5 favorite and go on to a one-length victory. Lawyer Ron has many faces, and you never know when he's going to get rank and try to run off with John McKee. After settling beautifully and coming from far back to win the St. Louis Derby, Lawyer Ron was once again his old impetuous self and dragged McKee to the lead entering the backstretch. McKee, pulling back hard on the reins and his feet in the dashboard, had no control over Lawyer Ron, who seemed intent on getting the lead at all costs, despite another horse (His Eyes) bounding to the front at the start.

After throwing in fractions of :46.77 and 1:10.85, and having to turn back the challenge of His Eyes and then Costa Rising, Lawyer Ron was unable to withstand the powerful stretch run of Strong Contender. To demonstrate what a big race Strong Contender ran, Lawyer Ron finished 6 1/2 lengths ahead of third-place finisher Louisborg.

Strong Contender is not a horse to be taken lightly come Nov. 4, as he should keep improving now that he's beginning to mature and fill into that big, powerful frame of his. Just remember how brilliant this colt was early in his career, and how he manhandled some talented horses in the Dwyer Stakes (gr. II).

As for Lawyer Ron, this is a brilliant colt who at times is simply too headstrong for his own good. It has never cost him a big race before, but he'd never faced a horse as talented as Strong Contender. It still is amazing how well this horse performs after being virtually strangled down the backstretch. Most horses would resent that kind of restraint and eventually call it a day. But he just shrugs it off and keeps going. On this day, however, he was unable to get away with it. But it still took a super performance by a very good horse to beat him.

Other Classic News

In other Classic news, Nick Zito said he will train Sun King up to the Classic, and is confident he can have him ready for a big effort. "We're going for the whole enchilada," Zito said. "I don't think he'll let me down."

Zito is planning on running Andromeda's Hero in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The son of Fusaichi Pegasus  has run some of his best races at 1 1/4 miles and farther, finishing second to Afleet Alex in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) and third to Invasor in the Suburban Handicap (gr. I).

Also pointing for the Jockey Club Gold Cup is the potential dark horse in this year's Classic picture, Second of June, who has fought his way back from a number of injuries and is just now beginning to peak. This was a serious Kentucky Derby horse in 2004 before he was knocked off the Derby trail by a fracture. He is coming off a gutsy second-place finish in the Woodward (gr. I) in only his third start back off a long layoff and should show big improvement off that effort. Trainer Bill Cesare will ship him to Belmont about a week before the Gold Cup to let him get used to the track. He could have chosen a much easier spot in the Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. II), but Cesare has so much confidence in the son of Louis Quatorze, he doesn't fear any horse, including Bernardini and Invasor. Watch out for this guy, especially in a dogfight. He's fast, he's tough, and he's all heart.

Another horse who will train up to the Classic is Washington Park Handicap (gr. II) winner Suave, who came out of his disappointing effort in the Woodward in good shape, according to trainer Paul McGee. "He got away bad and got in trouble going into the first turn," McGee said. "He's run badly before when things don't go his way. I'll give him a series of long breezes before the Classic."

One horse who will not make the Classic is Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II) winner Buzzard's Bay, who has been sent to the farm for a freshening after his ankle swelled following his last two works. Trainer Ron Ellis said the colt, who has not run since finishing fourth in the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I), will be laid up for a couple of months.

The prospective field for the Oct. 7 Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II) is still up in the air, but it looks as if it may attract Lava Man, Giacomo, Brother Derek, and Super Frolic. The Clement Hirsch Turf Championship (gr. I) a week earlier had been an option for Lava Man, while Super Frolic could still try for a repeat score in the Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. II) the same day. But the Goodwood, which has produced three of the last six Classic winners, appears to be the better prep for both horses, who are coming off several 1 1/4-miles races and should benefit more from 1 1/8-mile sharpener. At this point, it looks as if they'll all be heading for the Goodwood.

It is apparent that until he proves he can win outside of California, Lava Man will not get the respect accorded Bernardini or Invasor – assuming one of them wins the Jockey Club Gold Cup. But, considering what he's accomplished over the past 15 months, especially at a mile and a quarter, he deserves to be right up there with those two. It could very well be that Bernardini is in a class by himself, but for now, Lava Man's heroics this year – winning the grade I Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic, as well as the grade I Whittingham on turf -- should entitle him to a lot more respect than he's been given by the Eastern racing establishment.

Other Breeders' Cup news:

-- Coolmore and Sheikh Mohammed continued their ongoing battle in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (Eng-I) at Ascot Saturday when Coolmore's Ivan Denisovich, who had finished a fast-closing second in the Secretariat Stakes (gr. IT), came out and gave Godolphin's Librettist a smack with his rear-end as the field turned into the stretch. Coolmore's big horse, George Washington, who had been patiently sitting in behind horses, swung out and burst to the lead in the final furlong to win going away, while Librettist, who was caught wide the entire trip, lacked any kind of punch and tired to finish sixth. The stewards immediately reviewed the tape and suspended Ivan Denisovich's rider, Seamus Heffernan, for 14 days.

The bumping incident itself did not seem so severe that it would warrant a 14-day suspension, but the Ascot stewards felt it was a flagrant attempt to compromise the chances of Librettist, who was moving at the time, but from the outcome, wasn't going to win under any circumstances. O'Brien claims that Ivan Denisovich merely held his ground. Godolphin announced on Sunday that Librettist came out of the race lame.

Librettist's jockey, Frankie Dettori, added fuel to the fire after the race by jawing at O'Brien, who the following day called Dettori a "spoiled child."

-- Bobby Frankel has a possible candidate for the Mile in Stonerside Stable's Karen's Caper, who turned in a powerful stretch run to win the one-mile Noble Damsel Breeders' Cup (gr. IIIT) with final quarter in about :22 2/5.

-- Todd Pletcher added yet another top contender for the Juvenile (gr. I) when he sent out King of the Roxy to a three-quarter-length victory in the Futurity Stakes (gr. I). The son of Littleexpectations, who was a standout in the paddock, still is not totally focused and ran with his ears up the entire length of the stretch. Watch out for runner-up C P West, who was in traffic most of the race after breaking from post 2, but still came on with a strong run through the stretch for Nick Zito.

Another 2-year-old to emerge Saturday was Green Vegas, who turned in a good stretch run to win the Foolish Pleasure Breeders' Cup at Calder by two lengths for owner-trainer Luis Olivares.

-- Saturday's Matron Stakes (gr. I) shocker, won by 34-1 shot Meadow Breeze, left several questions regarding the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I). The daughter of Meadowlake has now won at Evangeline Downs, Mountaineer Park, and Belmont, and one can only guess how the form of this race will hold up. Both of Pletcher's fillies, Octave and Feather Bed, who dead-heated for second, ran game races, but simply were outrun in the final yards.

-- A round of applause to the most under-appreciated horse in training, Better Talk Now, who is still going strong at age 7 as indicated by his gutsy victory in the $300,000 Sky Classic Stakes at Woodbine Sunday. No matter where this horse runs, you always have to respect him, and he would be a welcome addition to Team U.S.A. in the Turf should trainer Graham Motion decide to go that route again with the 2004 Turf winner.