Steve Haskin: "Fusaichi Pegasus' presence will make or break the Classic."

Steve Haskin: "Fusaichi Pegasus' presence will make or break the Classic."

Anne M. Eberhardt

Countdown to the Cup: Refueled 'Missile' Takes Aim at Classic

It was once a vintage crop, but the pick of the older horses have either fallen from the vine or shriveled under the heat of battle. Golden Missile, however, has been kept in the shade the past few months, and unlike his withered opponents, he should be a relatively fresh horse and ready to take on whatever 3-year-old phenoms show up on Nov. 4.

This is not to imply that Lemon Drop Kid and Cat Thief, all that's left of the once-powerful older horse division, cannot rebound from their crushing defeats, it's just that it makes more sense when looking for value to read the fine print. And the fine print says Golden Missile likes Churchill Downs, having won the Stephen Foster earlier this year; he avoided the gut-wrenching battle in the Woodward; he avoided having to chase after a speeding bullet through a mile and a quarter in 1:59 1/5 in the Jockey Club Gold Cup; he is now fully recovered from a nasty foot bruise suffered in the Whitney, before which he was ranked No. 1 in the older horse division; his narrow defeat to inferior horses in the Hawthorne Gold Cup was very similar to last year's effort in the same race, which set him up for a huge third-place finish in the Classic at 75-1; and next time, he no doubt will be ridden more to his style, which is to stay covered for as long as possible and not hit the front so quickly. While this route normally does not result in Eclipse Awards, it's sure proven over the past two years to be a darn good way to get to the Classic.

Trainer Joe Orseno said Golden Missile's foot, which caused him to miss a good deal of training in August, is "100 percent perfect." Orseno is waiting as long as possible before naming another rider to replace Kent Desormeaux, but if Fusaichi Pegasus is still a go by Thursday, look for an announcement to be made then. Whoever winds up landing the mount on the son of A.P. Indy could very well be inheriting a $4 million gold mine.

Another forgotten horse recently is Cat Thief, who has not won a race since upsetting the Classic last year. Frankly, we never have any idea what this colt is going to do, and it's no different now. Basically, it's pretty simple. If Cat Thief likes the racetrack, he's always a threat to hit the board. One trait you have to admire in this horse, he runs hard and always tries. If he doesn't like a particular track, he still runs hard and tries, and because of that, he has a tendency to flip his palate. Without getting into the anatomy of that it, it simply results in his losing his air, which in turn causes slight bleeding. So, when you look at Cat Thief's past performances and see the occasional dismal effort, that's usually what happened. Remember, any horse who has won or placed in 11 grade I stakes, even though he only won two of them, is always dangerous on his best day. Also remember, in his only three starts at Churchill Downs, he finished a good third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at 2, the Kentucky Derby at 3, and the Stephen Foster at 4.

As for Lemon Drop Kid, there's not much that can be said. There are some who feel his powerful efforts this summer have taken their toll, and that the Woodward delivered the coup de grace. Many were bewildered by the dramatic difference in the final time and closing fractions of the Woodward and Ruffian, but that vast chasm between the two races was confirmed in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Beldame. Lemon Drop Kid, in being beaten 9 lengths, ran his 1 1/4 miles in a respectable 2:01, Riboletta blazed her 1 1/8 miles in 1:46, which again equates to about a 10-length difference. Monday morning quarterbacks might say he should have skipped the Gold Cup and gone into the Classic off a little freshening to get over the Woodward and any long-term effects the Whitney and his 1:58 4/5 mile and a quarter in the Suburban might have had.

Lemon Drop Kid did get bumped and squeezed back at the start of the Gold Cup, losing valuable position, but he never at any point was able to put himself into contention or demonstrate the quick acceleration he's shown all year. Also, Lemon Drop Kid has been out of the money in his two starts at Churchill Downs. All horses are entitled to have an off day, and that's simply what might have happened in the Gold Cup. There are several factors that say keep away at the price he's going to be, but the Horse of the Year title still is his for the taking, and until he misfires with a clean trip, he must be respected.

Also going from the Gold Cup to the Classic is Gander, the second-place finisher to Albert the Great who will be supplemented at a cost of $360,000. A New York-bred whose stakes triumphs have been in restricted races, Gander also has third-place finishes in this year's Woodward Stakes (gr. I) and Saratoga Breeders Cup Handicap (gr. II) to his credit.

And finally, we have the 3-year-olds. If everything goes well, and that's a big 'if' the way this sport has been going lately, we could have an epic showdown between Fusaichi Pegasus, Giant's Causeway, Albert the Great, Tiznow, and Captain Steve, not to mention Pine Dance. That alone makes the mouth water. If Fusaichi Pegasus and Giant's Causeway hook up, it would be the most talked about international showdown between 3-year-olds since the Zev -- Papyrus match race in 1923. All one can do is keep their fingers crossed (why not throw in the toes as well) and just hope Fusaichi Pegasus is among those in the starting gate on Nov. 4. Regardless how talented the others are, and they are an extremely talented bunch, as Fusaichi Pegasus goes, so goes the Classic. He is the marquee name, the one the people flock to see. His presence will make or break the race. The Classic may turn out to be a great race without him, but the excitement and anticipation he brings to a race will be gone.

Continued. . . .