Balto Star, edging Dynever to win the Meadowlands Cup.

Balto Star, edging Dynever to win the Meadowlands Cup.

Associated Press

Countdown to the Cup: Time for that 'Old Meadowlands Magic'

And you thought all the important preps for the Breeders' Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I) had been run. Well, sitting out there all by itself, virtually unnoticed among the morass of major stakes this past weekend was the $500,0000 Meadowlands Breeders' Cup Stakes (gr. II), just waiting to conjure up another live Classic longshot.

Better known as the Meadowlands Cup, the nine-furlong race has proved to be an important steppingstone to the Classic. And after Dynever's fast-closing second to Balto Star on Oct. 8, the son of Dynaformer could be in a good position to improve on his third-place finish in last year's running.

First off, to demonstrate the impact of the Meadowlands Cup on the Classic, last year, Dynever, as a 3-year-old, finished a solid second to the tough older horse Bowman's Band (giving him weight), then came back to finish a fast-closing third in the Classic at odds of 15-1.

In 2002, Volponi finished second in the Meadowlands Cup, then romped by 6 1/2 lengths in the Classic at odds of 43-1. In 1996, Mt. Sassafras was third at the Meadowlands, then finished a close fourth, beaten only three-quarters of a length, in the Classic at odds of 101-1. In 1995, L'Carriere finished fourth at the Meadowlands, then was second to Cigar in the Classic at odds of 51-1. In 1991, Twilight Agenda won the Meadowlands Cup before finishing second in the Classic at 13-1. In 1989, Blushing John was a big disappointment in the Meadowlands Cup, finishing seventh, but bounced back to finish a strong third behind Sunday Silence and Easy Goer in the Classic at 21-1. In 1988, Alysheba scored a Meadowlands Cup-Breeders' Cup Classic double to nail down Horse of the Year honors. And in 1984, Wild Again won the Meadowlands Cup, then captured the inaugural Classic at odds of 31-1.

You can also throw in North East Bound, who won the 2000 Meadowlands Cup, then was beaten a neck right on the wire by War Chant in the Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT) at odds of 42-1.

Dynever is now back for another crack at the Classic, although trainer Chris Clement said nothing is definite yet. Like Pleasantly Perfect last year, Dynever goes into the Classic with a solid effort at a mile and a quarter from the previous year and will be coming off a good prep race following a layoff. In addition, he will be the only horse in the Classic field with a race (and a victory) over the Lone Star track, having won the Lone Star Derby last year.

The word is that the Lone Star surface is almost identical to that of Santa Anita. Dynever could serve as a good example of that, having won at Lone Star, then finishing third in last year's Classic at Santa Anita and winning this year's San Bernardino Handicap (gr. III) by 4 1/2 lengths over Total Impact and Even the Score. The latter two went on to dominate the Hollywood Park meeting, sweeping the grade II Mervyn Leroy and Californian (Even the Score), and grade I Hollywood Gold Cup (Total Impact). In the San Bernardino, Dynever blew both those colts away with a final eighth in :12 1/5 after a fourth quarter in :23 4/5.

It's true he has appeared to underachieve at times, and he was beaten by a horse who hadn't run on dirt since June of last year. But when he catches his track and is on his game, he has the talent to compete with anyone. And remember, no one has a clue who is going to like Lone Star and who isn't, so speed figures might have little meaning this year. It could very well be that the Grand Prairie track will prove to be the great equalizer.

Bryan Reed of Stonecrest Farm, owner of Perfect Drift, said the son of Dynaformer definitely will run in the Classic, and will likely ship to Lone Star on the Monday or Tuesday before the race. The gelding's regular rider, Pat Day, will be aboard, unless Azeri runs in the Classic, which would necessitate a search for a replacement. Although it's been a frustrating year for the horse and his connections, there is one good omen. After going 0-for-63 this year, trainer Murray Johnson has won his last two starts. Just maybe, the cloud has been lifted, and the good vibes are back in the barn.

Bowman's Band, who hasn't won since his victory in last year's Meadowlands Cup, was added to the list of Classic starters after trainer Allen Jerkens was informed by the 6-year-old horse's owner, Martin Schwartz, that he'd like to take a shot at the big race. The son of Dixieland Band has been consistent most of the year, competing against the best, but is coming off a poor effort in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I).

With Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I) winner Bago out of the Classic picture, and Saint Liam very doubtful after getting sick, the field is firming up, with Ghostzapper, Pleasantly Perfect, Roses in May, Birdstone, Funny Cide, Perfect Drift, Newfoundland, Freefourinternet, Domestic Dispute, and Bowman's Band all definite. Dynever is a probable, and Powerscourt and Supah Blitz are possibles.

The Big Azeri Query
So, will Michael Paulson and Wayne Lukas move Azeri up into the heavyweight division and go for the big knockout punch or take the more logical route and be satisfied to conclude her illustrious career with a TKO or decision?

If Azeri wins the Nextel Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) again, it would be a magnificent swan song to a Hall of Fame career, and would cap a great comeback, after the entire racing world was convinced she had been retired. Paulson, however, insisted she never was retired. It is true that a victory in the Classic would take her to where no filly or mare has ever gone before, but the degree of difficulty obviously would be far greater than competing with her own sex. She has tried colts once before and failed, and has tried 1 1/4 miles once before and failed. This would seem to make the task even more difficult.

Azeri's victory in the Oct. 10 Overbrook Spinster Stakes (gr. I) was an impressive addition to her resume. After being hooked by longshot Tamweel for a quarter of a mile, Azeri finally asserted her class and drew off to win comfortably by three lengths in 1:49 3/5 for the nine furlongs. How she'll fare hooking up with the likes of Ghostzapper, Roses in May, and Pleasantly Perfect, among others, is the big question.

Paulson and Lukas must now decide if it's worth taking the gamble for the chance at immortality. A sound defeat in the Classic really would not tarnish her reputation, while even a solid third-place finish would enhance it. On the opposite end, she is not going to have an easy time of it, with her style of running. In her only 1 1/4-mile race, she came home very slowly and was run down in the final furlong. So, Paulson and Lukas will have to ask themselves, do they want to subject her to such an arduous task at the age of six?

So far, Paulson has been proven right by Azeri, as evidenced by her three grade I victories this year. One thing you have to say about him, regardless of whether Azeri has won or finished out of the money, he has always been right there waiting for her on the track to give her a pat on the neck. Watching him with Azeri in the paddock or after a race, there is no doubt he has great affection for her and would never do anything to put her in harm's way. He has stuck his neck out before in the face of criticism, and is not going to let public opinion influence him now. So, if he and Lukas decide to go for the Classic, everyone will have to accept the decision and hope this great champion does herself proud, win or lose.

Acropolis, Now?
Is it possible the most amazing performance this month has been a fourth-place finish? You'll see that it's more than possible if you watch a replay of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and follow the Aidan O'Brien-trained 3-year-old Acropolis. Coming off only one start this year, a narrow victory in a small race at Leopardstown, the 84-1 shot had one horse beat turning for home in the 19-horse Arc field. Stuck down on the rail with little room, the son of Sadler's Wells made steady progress through heavy traffic, then darted inside one horse and began to pour it on. He was just starting to run at the eighth pole and kept getting stronger in the final furlong, just nipping English Derby (Eng-I) winner North Light for fourth, while being beaten only 3 1/2 lengths by Bago.

Who knows where this effort came from, but it was pretty spectacular to watch, especially under the circumstances. O'Brien said a decision will be made over the weekend or early next week whether he makes the journey to Lone Star. O'Brien also said the Classic and John Deere Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) are being considered for Powerscourt. His other Breeders' Cup possibles are Yesterday for the Filly & Mare Turf, in which she finished third last year, and Antonius Pius for the Mile. O'Brien had considered sending a pair of colts for the Bessemer Trust Juvenile (gr. I) – Oratorio and Scandanavia – but has decided against it.

Red-hot Ramsey
There will be no owners more live on the Breeders' Cup program than Ken and Sarah Ramsey, who have a big chance in three events – the Classic with Roses in May, Turf with Kitten's Joy, and Mile with Nothing to Lose. All are coming off brilliant stakes victories, with Nothing to Lose blowing away a strong field to win the Shadwell Turf Mile (gr. IT).

Kitten's Joy will attempt to join Manila (1986) and Prized (1989) as the only American-trained 3-year-olds to win the Turf. Three European sophomores have captured the race – Lashkari (1984), Tikkanen (1994), and High Chaparral (2002).