CLASSIC PREVIEW 2003: Plenty Left to Like

Is it possible the tumultuous ride is over? Is the runaway train known as the Breeders' Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I) finally under control? All indications say "yes," which means America's richest horse race can pull into Santa Anita with its passengers intact.

Somewhere along the way, its most illustrious passenger, Mineshaft, got thrown off, as did Candy Ride before him. In between, Empire Maker was tossed off as well. Moon Ballad missed the train altogether.

Perfect Drift didn't like the destination and begged off. He then changed his mind and hopped aboard. Several others followed, but all hell broke loose when Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I) winner Funny Cide made a surprise late appearance, followed by the top-class European Falbrav.

While all this pandemonium was taking place, Medaglia d'Oro, Congaree, and Ten Most Wanted were all back home in California, waiting to see who else showed up.

Pleasantly Perfect earned his ticket with a victory in the Goodwood Breeders' Cup (gr. II), and Hold That Tiger prepared to embark on his journey from Ballydoyle in County Tipperary, Ireland. Last year's Classic winner, Volponi, has been on course for a return visit all year, and not even seven straight defeats would alter his plans. Trainer Phil Johnson has been determined to get back to the big show, and is as confident as ever that the Volponi of last year will show up when it counts.

It was when Mineshaft defected, due to bone chips, following another brilliant victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) that Evening Attire and Dynever came on board. Then came trainer Barclay Tagg's announcement that Funny Cide would be pointed for the Classic despite not having run since Aug. 3. When Falbrav's connections decided to possibly try for the Classic, the once-depleted Classic field suddenly was near its capacity of 14 starters.

The Classic now boils down to a trio of older horses--Medaglia d'Oro, Congaree, and Perfect Drift--and two 3-year-olds, Funny Cide and Ten Most Wanted, attempting to snatch the Horse of the Year title away from Mineshaft. Add two top-class Europeans, Falbrav and Hold That Tiger, and you have the ingredients for a memorable Classic.

A sidelight of the Classic will be the hard-knocking, older New York-based horses, Volponi and Evening Attire, trying to show the world that the Big Apple can indeed grow and flourish in Arcadia, Calif. In the past two Breeders' Cups run at Santa Anita, a total of 18 Classic runners had made their previous starts at Belmont Park. Their record is 0-for-18, with 14 out-of-the-money finishes. Although Volponi made his last start at Meadowlands, as he did last year, he is a New Yorker through and through. That leaves Evening Attire, the quintessential New Yorker, as the only horse to prep at Belmont Park.

Hold That Tiger will command some attention and respect after his excellent second-place finish behind Mineshaft in the Woodward Stakes (gr. I). Falbrav attempts to add America to his successful ports of call, which include England, France, Italy, and Japan, and a near-victory in Ireland, in which many feel he was the best horse.

But all eyes will be on the big five. Can the brilliant Congaree beat a top-class field going 1 1/4 miles? Can Medaglia d'Oro do what he failed to do last year--win the Classic off a nine-week layoff? Is Perfect Drift as effective having to travel after dominating the Midwest all year? Can Funny Cide return to his Triple Crown form coming off a long layoff? Is Ten Most Wanted fast enough and mature enough to handle these kind of older horses? And finally, can one of them vault past Mineshaft and nail down the Horse of the Year title?