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Last Chance to Sway the Vote

Mineshaft, a favorite for horse of the year, won't run in Breeders' Cup Classic. Another may captivate, and get nod.

October 19, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

M-I-N-E-S-H-A-F-T.

Some Eclipse Awards voters are ready to pencil in those letters on their horse-of-the-year ballots, even though Mineshaft, who has been retired to stud, won't run in the $4-million Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday at Santa Anita.

There are probably just as many voters in a wait-and-see mode, favoring Mineshaft but maybe looking for another horse, one that might woo them with a captivating performance.

Horses who seem to be in this category include Medaglia d'Oro, Perfect Drift, Funny Cide, Ten Most Wanted and Congaree, who are running in the Classic, and Azeri, last year's horse of the year, who is pre-entered in the Classic but probably will run in the Distaff, the race she won last year.

Mineshaft's record -- seven wins in nine starts, four Grade I wins, victories over four different tracks, wins at distances from 1 1/16 to 1 1/4 miles -- would be good enough to cement horse of the year in most seasons, but there always could be the chance that voters might penalize the 4-year-old colt for not running at Santa Anita.

Mineshaft's co-owner, Will Farish, and his trainer, Neil Howard, cited minor problems that could grow into serious injuries in announcing the horse's retirement Oct. 3, several days after he had won the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.

Armchair veterinarians questioned the retirement. Mineshaft had jogged almost 1 1/2 miles shortly after his Belmont win.

He will begin a stud career in February at a fee of $100,000 per mare at Farish's farm near Midway, Ky. Some major stallions are being bred to 200 mares a year these days, which could make Mineshaft's book value $20 million in his first breeding season alone.

It is not unprecedented for a horse to miss the Breeders' Cup and still be voted horse of the year -- since the first Breeders' Cup in 1984, six champions have been crowned without having run in racing's one-day, late-season smorgasbord.

Four of those six were 3-year-olds who either won the Kentucky Derby or, in the case of Point Given in 2001, lost the Derby but won the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, the other two jewels in the Triple Crown.

The others were John Henry, who was a week away from running in the first Breeders' Cup Turf when sidelined by an injury, and Criminal Type, whose season ended in September after he had won four Grade I stakes in less than three months. Those wins weighed heavier with the voters than the record of Unbridled, who won the Florida Derby, the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders' Cup Classic against older horses but also was beaten seven times.

The 3-year-olds still in this year's title hunt are Funny Cide and Ten Most Wanted. Funny Cide won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in May but hasn't won in five months and has been hounded by physical problems.

Still, he has a better chance than Ten Most Wanted of displacing Mineshaft if he would spring an upset Saturday. After winning the Illinois Derby, Ten Most Wanted was ninth in the Kentucky Derby and second in the Belmont but more recently has won the Travers -- with Funny Cide and Belmont winner Empire Maker hors de combat -- and the Super Derby. Because of Ten Most Wanted's record in the Triple Crown, voters might still be tempted to vote for Mineshaft if Ten Most Wanted won the Classic.

Congaree's negative is his penchant for alternating wins with defeats. He has Grade I wins at seven furlongs and 1 1/4 miles, but he has also been beaten three times as the odds-on favorite.

Perfect Drift, who has beaten Congaree and Mineshaft this year, would seemingly have enough credentials with a Classic win.

The 4-year-old gelding has been well managed by trainer Murray Johnson, whose only mistake was to switch his horse to grass at summer's end.

"It will be up to the voters," Johnson says of Perfect Drift's chances. "There are a lot of variables. Some people say that our win over Mineshaft was a fluke, but [jockey] Pat Day and I don't feel that way."

In June at Churchill Downs, jockey Robby Albarado might have moved too soon with Mineshaft as Perfect Drift, carrying eight fewer pounds, beat them by a head in the Stephen Foster Handicap.

"I don't think the eight pounds mattered," Johnson said. "... I thought we beat Mineshaft fair and square."

Last month at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., with a four-pound edge, Perfect Drift beat Congaree by one length in the Kentucky Cup Handicap. Perfect Drift's only two losses this year were on grass.

Medaglia d'Oro has raced infrequently this year but won three of four, among them the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga. One would have to go back to 1954, when Native Dancer won horse of the year off only three starts, to find a more lightly raced champion. Some say that "The Dancer" was a beneficiary of voters' remorse; the previous year, he had been beaten out by Tom Fool in a disputed outcome.

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