Countdown to the Cup: The Fireworks Begin

Just think, there are eight Grade I stakes and six Grade II stakes this weekend, and it's only a prelude to the monster weekend coming up on Oct. 14 and 15. After that, horses will fill the skies over land and sea, and the only ground action will be in the form of behemoth horse vans rumbling into Louisville.

Turf horses and 2-year-olds dominate this weekend's stakes, with the Turf Classic, Clement Hirsch, Flower Bowl, Yellow Ribbon, Shadwell Mile, Kelso Handicap, and Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup all playing an important role in sorting out the contenders for the three Breeders' Cup turf races.

But there are several BC Classic preps, and we'll touch on those races first.

CLASSIC: Frank Stronach, who has used the Hawthorne Gold Cup as a springboard to the Classic for 1998 winner Awesome Again and 1999 third-place finisher Golden Missile, will send Golden Missile back again to do battle against Puerto Madero, Blazing Sword, and Catienus and his rabbit El Ballezano on Saturday. Golden Missile, who was considered by many the top older horse in the country before suffering a bad foot bruise in the Whitney, should come into the Classic a live and fresh horse if he moves forward at Hawthorne. This race should not take any of the starch out, as the JC Gold Cup could, and there is no reason why the son of A.P. Indy should not be a major force on Breeders' Cup day.

The only other major Classic contender scheduled to run this weekend was Pacific Classic winner Skimming in Saturday's Meadowlands Cup. But when trainer Bobby Frankel balked rather vociferously about the weight assignment and withdrew his colt, it left the race as isolated as the surrounding swampland. So, now Frankel has a dilemma, mainly where to run the horse. "I don't know what to do," he said. "I should have nominated him to everything."

Frankel doesn't have many choices. He can either run in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, as originally planned, or head back to California for the Goodwood Handicap. "I'll consider the Gold Cup if Fusaichi Pegasus doesn't run," he said. Why would Frankel be afraid of a 3-year-old when there are so many tough older horses to contend with? "Because I can't beat him," he said bluntly. "After his race in the Jerome, I'm definitely more afraid of him than Lemon Drop Kid."

Frankel does have Euchre, who's been training brilliantly, pointing for the Goodwood, so we feel there's still a good shot he'll take his chances in the Gold Cup.

Skimming's defection leaves the Meadowlands Cup with Vision and Verse, Lemon Drop Kid's old nemesis from last year, who could earn himself a trip to Louisville with a good performance. There is also the Iselin Handicap winner Rize, who couldn't handle the big guns in the Kentucky Cup Classic; Valhol, last year's most infamous racehorse, who was involved the much-publicized battery incident in the Arkansas Derby; the tough old-timer Leave it to Beezer; and Talk's Cheap.

Also on tap Saturday is the Fayette Handicap at Keeneland, which came up light, and is just screaming out for Skimming. There is, however, a horse running that we feel has a bright future and the ability to become one of the stars of the older division. His name is Ground Storm, and while he has never run in a stakes, having undergone ankle surgery last year, his last few races in New York have been extremely impressive. We love the way this colt moves and the way he carries himself. Trained by Bill Mott, he just seems to have the look of a class horse, with all the tools to be a good one. In the Fayette, he'll likely be facing the Frankel-trained Mojave Moon, Deputy Flag, Jadada, and Get Away With It.

A spokesman for Coolmore said a decision regarding Giant's Causeway's next start likely will come at the end of the week. On the workout front, Fusaichi Pegasus breezed a half in :49 4/5 at Belmont, Lemon Drop Kid breezed a half in :48 3/5 at Belmont, and Captain Steve sizzled six furlongs in 1:11 3/5 at Santa Anita. Albert the Great, who we feel could be the dark horse in the JC Gold Cup, breezed a strong five furlongs in 1:00 1/5. Gander, third in the Woodward, turned in a sharp work with blinkers for the first time and will wear them in the Gold Cup.

It looks as if Super Derby winner Tiznow will take on Captain Steve again in the Goodwood Handicap. No decision will be made regarding the Classic until his connections see how he does in that race and also how the big guns fare in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. In addition to Skimming, other possibilities for the Goodwood are Big Ten, Sir Bear, and Bagshot.

TURF: Saturday's Turf Classic Invitational at Belmont will go a long way in determining the BC Turf favorite. A victory by Man o' War winner Fantastic Light will no doubt give him that distinction. But it won't be easy. Val's Prince, winner of the last two Turf Classics, looks to be back on top of his game after a strong second in the Belmont BC Handicap. Northern Quest, Bobby Frankel's big horse for the Turf, is always dangerous. Frankel had been toying with the idea of possibly shifting gears at the last minute and going for the Canadian International, but decided on the Turf Classic. Then there is Ela Athena, who ran such a bang-up race in the Man o' War; and John's Call, runaway winner of the Sword Dancer, who will be hoping for a soft course. There are showers predicted over the next few days, up until Friday, so he may get the wet course he's looking for. Frankel also expects a much-improved race from Italian import Timboroa, who threw a shoe early in the Man o' War. He had a sharp 6-furlong breeze recently in 1:14 4/5. Other possibilities are Commander Collins, Drama Critic, and Craigsteel.

Sunday's Clement Hirsch Handicap at Santa Anita does not look to be a very strong race, but there are some solid horses in there, headed by Mash One, another Frankel horse, Asidero, White Heart, Self Feeder, Prairieton, and Boatman (yet another Frankel horse).

Bill Mott will give Rob's Spirit an easy spot in the 1 1/4-mile Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs Saturday.

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