Mineshaft, drawing superlatives after Woodward performance.

Mineshaft, drawing superlatives after Woodward performance.

NYRA/Adam Coglianese

Countdown to the Cup: Mineshaft and Candy Ride on Collision Course in Classic

If the 2003 Woodward Stakes (gr. I) were a movie, the reviews for its star, Mineshaft, would read:

"Spectacular. Amazing. That was great stuff." -- owner Steven Duncker to Mineshaft's co-owner and breeder William S. Farish

"He's a special horse; he looked fantastic. Keep it going." -- owner and publisher Barry Weisbord to Mineshaft's trainer Neil Howard

"He's a phenomenal animal. It's unbelievable; I've never felt anything like that before. That was scary." -- Mineshaft's jockey Robby Albarado

"I couldn't believe how easily he went by me. It was amazing to watch." – Edgar Prado, rider of runner-up Hold That Tiger

Throw in other blurbs such as, "What a horse!" "That was fabulous," and numerous "Unbelievables."

Superlatives such was these flowed as freely as the champagne in the Trustees dining room following one of the most awe-inspiring perfomances seen at Belmont Park in a long while.

What do you expect when a horse closes his last five-eighths in :58 1/5, is never touched with the whip, and is not even blowing afterward? A horse who runs 1 1/8 miles in 1:46 1/5, coming home his last two fractions in :22 4/5 and :11 4/5? By comparison, the grade I Gazelle Handicap, two races earlier, was run in 1:48 2/5.

This comes two weeks after Candy Ride's brilliant victory over Medaglia d'Oro in the Pacific Classic, which drew similar superlatives. So, can a former European, now racing in the East and Midwest, beat a former Argentinean, now racing in California? Can the Kentucky establishment beat a Hollywood glitz and gamour couple who will have to shell out $800,000 for the privilege of taking on this budding superstar?

Before anyone thinks the Classic is nothing more than a two-horse showdown, there also is Medaglia d'Oro and Congaree, two of the most brilliant colts seen in a while. Although Candy Ride beat Medaglia d'Oro convincingly at Del Mar, you have to remember Medaglia d'Oro was running back only three weeks after a hard-run comeback victory in the Whitney (gr. I). And he was traveling 3,000 miles to a track that, for Eastern shippers, has meant sure defeat. Not even Cigar could ship out there and win after 16 straight victories. And they needed a telescope to find Touch Gold when he tried it. Add the fact that Medaglia d'Oro broke open a pus pocket in the race. He will now be trained up to the Classic off a 9-week layoff, which has never been done before. He, along with War Emblem and Came Home, tried it last year and all three were soundly beaten, with War Emblem and Came Home finishing up the track. Not that it can't be done. It just hasn't yet in 19 years.

As for Mineshaft, Farish, who currently serves as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, wisely extended his visit to the States to be able to see Mineshaft run. Although he has been involved in racing and breeding at the highest level for over three decades, he still couldn't believe what he had just seen.

"He's an amazing horse, just an amazing horse," he said as he waited for Mineshaft to return. "Horses like him don't come around much. He's like a machine. I'm a realist, but I have to admit, he is something."

The last time Mineshaft ran, he was nearly as impressive winning the Suburban Handicap (gr. I) on July 5. With Farish in England, co-owner and breeder Temple Webber Jr. proudly led the horse into the winner's circle. Not today. This was Farish's moment and he was going relish every second of it. "I'm going to take him down the lane for you this time," he said to Webber, who is partners in the colt along with James Elkins.

For Howard, the pressure had been on. He had decided to pass the Aug. 2 Whitney Handicap (gr. I) in order to give Mineshaft a little breather before the big fall push to the Breeders' Cup Classic. Farish agreed with the decision, and now it was time to see what kind of horse emerged from a two-month layoff. Since he began his career in April, 2002, he had raced in every month but one.

"You always second guess yourself, that's human nature," Howard said at his barn earlier in the afternoon. "But if you're looking for a fall campaign in these kind of races, it would have been way out of line not skipping a race with him. No matter what happens today, we're not going to look back and say we should have done this or we should have done that. You have your normal apprehension, hoping you've done enough with him, which I think I did."

As Howard spoke, Mineshaft, as he always does on race day, stood motionless in the middle of his stall with his ears back, as if he were getting himself in the proverbial zone. He left the worrying to Howard and his wife Sue.

"It's when a horse looks unbeatable on paper in a five-horse field like this that you get the most nervous," Sue said. "We're more nervous for this than we would be for the Breeders' Cup."

The night before, the Howards went to dinner in Garden City and sat there in virtual silence. "Believe me, the support I have from Sue is second to none," Howard said. "Usually, we talk about everything, but we didn't say two words to each other. We got back to the hotel and watched TV, and it was like we were afraid to say anything.

"You want to do well, because I know there can be nothing more gratifying for Mr. Farish, who has so much passion for breeding horses, than to send a horse off to kindergarten as a yearling, then bring him home knowing he is going to be a popular stallion. That's why we want this one so badly."

If Mineshaft could have talked, he would have told the Howards to quit worrying. He had a welcomed two months off, and only he could feel the volcano inside waiting to erupt. A voracious eater who consumes up to 14 quarts a day as if it were his last meal, he was packing a lot of flesh and muscle and was ready to get out there and put on a show.

Earlier in the day, Howard told Albarado, "If he's doing OK and things are going the way we want coming off the turn, let him finish up with a good hand ride just to move us forward."

If Mineshaft had moved any farther forward he would have kept right on running all the way to Santa Anita. Of the four opponents who showed up, Northern Rock was the front-running danger, having run a game race in the Whitney; Hold That Tiger was the unknown factor coming from Ireland almost a year after running a huge third in the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I); and Puzzlement was the improving horse who was coming off a big win in the Saratoga Breeders' Cup (gr. II). And he was trained by "The Giant Killer," Allen Jerkens, who 30 years earlier had blown Secretariat away in the Woodward with Prove Out.

Surprisingly, it was Hold That Tiger, along with longshot Thompson Rouge, who pressed Northern Rock after the Darley Stable gelding stumbled coming out of the gate. With the three horses together after a leisurely half in :47.40, Albarado was content to sit about three to four lengths back. Even with the slow pace, when Howard saw the three horses at each other's throat, he felt like "it was Christmas."

Albarado finally had enough of the waiting game. He pushed the button on Mineshaft just as the pace began to quicken, and the 1-5 favorite exploded, cruising by the leaders. Of the three, only Hold That Tiger stuck around and kept running hard in a gallant effort. Puzzlement was trying to close from the back, but the blistering final fractions prevented him from making up any ground.