GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas — Birdstone has a lot on the line when the $4-million Classic is run Saturday at Lone Star Park. He could squeeze out the largely forgotten Smarty Jones for the 3-year-old title. He could win horse-of-the-year honors as well.
To say that trainer Nick Zito is merely excited about these prospects would be an understatement.
"Just to be put in this position is pretty cool," Zito said.
Birdstone was made the 6-1 fourth choice when 13 horses were entered Wednesday for the 21st running of the 1 1/4 -mile Classic, the richest race in the United States.
Ahead of Zito's colt on the morning line are Pleasantly Perfect at 5-2, the 3-1 Ghostzapper and Roses In May at 5-1. Pleasantly Perfect, first at Santa Anita last year, is trying to join Tiznow as the only two-time winner of the race.
Zito, who has run seven horses in the Classic with no better finish than Louis Quatorze's second to Alphabet Soup in 1996, respects them all.
"The list of credentials for this field was mind-boggling, and now you're also throwing Azeri in there," he said.
Azeri, horse of the year in 2002, is trying to become the first female to win the Classic. She's 15-1, but may go off at a lower price. She would have been favored had she run in the Distaff, the race she won two years ago.
With $14 million in purses at stake, 91 horses were entered in the eight Breeders' Cup races. Besides Pleasantly Perfect, the other favorites are Ashado, 7-2 in the Distaff; Speightstown, 3-1 in the Sprint; Roman Ruler, 8-5 in the Juvenile; Sweet Catomine, 5-2 in the Juvenile Fillies; Kitten's Joy, even money in the Turf; Nothing To Lose, 7-2 in the Mile; and Ouija Board, 8-5 in the Filly & Mare Turf.
During a rainy week, weather continues to be a concern. Showers and storms are possible for today. The rain may temporarily subside Friday, but Saturday's forecast is for showers and thunderstorms, with high humidity and temperatures in the upper 70s. The Breeders' Cup has been run over off-tracks only twice since its inaugural at Hollywood Park in 1984.
Birdstone's record in the mud is a mixed bag. He won the first race of his career, by 12 1/2 lengths, in muddy going at Saratoga last year, but in May he finished eighth in the slop at the Kentucky Derby.
Smarty Jones won the Derby and the Preakness, but when Birdstone beat him in the Belmont Stakes, handing Smarty his first loss, he gave Eclipse Awards voters pause. Then Birdstone won the Travers, after Smarty Jones had been retired the month before.
"Birdstone is a physical-fitness freak," Zito said. "He trains himself. If he pulls it off, it'll be him, not me, who does it."
The Classic field also includes Funny Cide, winner of the Derby and Preakness last year, and a horse who seems to be returning to his best at the right time. Funny Cide is 6-1 on the morning line. A year ago, the 99-degree heat at Santa Anita was part of his undoing as he ran ninth in the Classic.
"To win the Derby and Preakness, Funny Cide must have some class," Zito said. "This is a great, great Classic. It's not going to be easy."
Richard Mandella, who won a record four Breeders' Cup races at Santa Anita, is represented only by Pleasantly Perfect this time.
"I'm just happy to have the one I have," Mandella said. "He couldn't be better. He's settled in like he never left home."
Pleasantly Perfect hasn't run since winning the Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 22, as he tries to win the Breeders' Cup Classic off an unprecedented 69-day layoff.
"That's the least of my concerns," Mandella said. "Those two races at Del Mar should be enough to get him ready."
Last year, Pleasantly Perfect prepped for the Breeders' Cup with a win at Santa Anita three weeks before the Classic, but Mandella's tactics differed this time because of the scope of the horse's year-end schedule. After Saturday's race, Pleasantly Perfect is scheduled to finish his career in the $3-million Japan Cup Dirt Stakes in Tokyo on Nov. 28.
Favorites do not do well in the Classic. Pleasantly Perfect will try to become the first public choice to win the stake since Skip Away in 1997. After winning from the No. 2 post last year, the 6-year-old will break from No. 12 on Saturday. Tiznow, winning the Classic for the first time, drew the 12-hole in a 13-horse field at Churchill Downs in 2000.
Mandella is unconcerned. "I don't think it will make any difference," he said. "[Jockey Jerry Bailey] was going to ease our horse back early no matter what post we were in. Then we hope he settles in behind the first flight of runners."
Four of Bailey's record 14 Breeders' Cup wins have come in the Classic, the most recent with Cigar in 1995. Bailey has ridden Pleasantly Perfect only once, in the Pacific Classic. Alex Solis, who won last year's Classic with Mandella's horse, is recovering from a broken back, suffered at Del Mar in July.