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THOROUGHBRED RACING : Paradise Creek Is Best on Grass, but Holy Bull Has Overall Edge

October 21, 1994|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After the Irish-bred Theatrical held off Bruce McNall's Arc de Triomphe winner, Trempolino, to win the Breeders' Cup Turf at Hollywood Park in 1987, friends called to congratulate Bill Mott for having trained a cinch grass champion.

Grass champion hell, Mott thought. In his opinion, Theatrical had done enough to merit more than that. The 5-year-old had raced all year, starting in the winter at Hialeah and ending with the fall in California, while winning seven of nine starts, six of the victories coming in Grade I races.

Mott figured that these were bona fide horse-of-the-year credentials. But this marked his introduction to the harsh vagaries of Eclipse Awards voting. Theatrical edged out Manila for the male grass championship, and horse- of-the-year honors went to Ferdinand, a dirt horse who had been beaten in more than half of his races.

Even now, Mott shakes his head about what went on at the ballot box in 1987. "Theatrical was as consistent as a horse could be," he said. "I feel that he was slighted. He was good from January to the end of the year, yet he was overlooked because he was a grass horse."

Ferdinand was a horse with charisma, which didn't hurt. He had won an extra-dramatic Kentucky Derby with Bill Shoemaker aboard in 1986, which should have had no bearing on 1987.

As a 4-year-old, Ferdinand had the look of another Derby horse who would be a bust the rest of his career. His post-Derby record was no wins in nine races before trainer Charlie Whittingham got him rolling again. From late June through the Breeders' Cup Classic--when many of the Eclipse voters are paying the most attention--Ferdinand was undefeated in four starts.

Seven years after Theatrical, Mott is knocking on the horse-of-the-year door with another consistent grass horse: Paradise Creek, who will be the heavy favorite in the $2-million Breeders' Cup Turf at Churchill Downs two weeks from Saturday, has won eight times and finished second once in nine starts. But this time there's a weightier presence out there than Ferdinand. Holy Bull, ineligible for the Breeders' Cup, has finished his season, and what a year it was: 10 starts, all on dirt, with eight wins and two easy victories over older horses at Belmont Park. In Thoroughbred Racing Communications' weekly poll, which includes only a fragment of the Eclipse voters, there were 31 votes for Holy Bull and one for Paradise Creek.

"There's always been a turf bias," Mott said. "But there has been a change the last few years. I think the voters have become more open-minded in the last five or six years."

Since the Eclipse Awards began in 1971, only four grass runners--John Henry twice, All Along and Kotashaan--have won the horse-of-the-year title. In 1981, John Henry's first championship year, he was tough on both surfaces, adding wins in the Santa Anita Handicap and the Jockey Club Gold Cup to his grass accomplishments. Last year, Kotashaan wouldn't have won the title if Bertrando hadn't run second to the 133-1 Arcangues in the Breeders' Cup Classic. That outcome left the electorate with nothing but grass horses--Kotashaan, Lure and Star of Cozzene--to vote for, so perhaps what Mott perceives as an age of enlightenment for Eclipse voters is a deception.

It's a relief that Mott and Jimmy Croll, the owner-trainer of Holy Bull, have styles that are more pianissimo than press agent. "Paradise Creek is a once-in-a-lifetime horse," the soft-spoken Mott said, "and I don't see any chinks in his armor. But I don't want to say anything that will get pie in my face. If he gets the job done in the Breeders' Cup, maybe I'll mouth off then. But until then, I'll let the horse do the talking."

Bert and Diana Firestone bred and raced both Theatrical and Paradise Creek, but they sold Paradise Creek to Masayuki Nishiyama, a Japanese businessman, early this year. This Nippon connection insures that Paradise Creek, headed for a career at stud in 1995, will run one more time after the Breeders' Cup, in the $3.5-million Japan Cup in Tokyo on Nov. 27.

Since there are no guidelines, Eclipse voters have been confused about what to do with the Japan Cup. Kotashaan's hard-luck defeat in Tokyo moved Lure closer to him in the final horse-of-the-year vote, and had Star of Cozzene won the Japan Cup, he might have moved past both of his grass rivals in the final tally.

Do not look to diplomatic Bill Mott for help on this tangled issue. "If a horse wins in Japan, there's more of a reason to consider him," he said. "And if he gets beat, you can always say that it's been a long, tough campaign and not hold it against him."

If Mott really wants to lure--poor word choice--more voters at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5, he ought to run Paradise Creek in the Breeders' Cup Mile instead of in the 1 1/2 mile Turf. Lure, winner of the last two runnings of the Mile, is trying to become the first horse to win three Breeders' Cup races, and any rival that ruins that mission would be special indeed.

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