A confrontation between the nation's best 3-year-old, Thunder Gulch, and the best older horse, Cigar, was expected to be the dramatic high point of the Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont Park Oct. 28.
But they will meet each other three weeks ahead of schedule, in today's Jockey Club Gold Cup. In a change of plans, trainer Wayne Lukas decided this week that Thunder Gulch was going to need a prep race to be at his best for the Classic. He felt that this 1 1/4-mile race at Belmont was the ideal spot for a tuneup--even if Cigar was going to be here, too.
A national television audience will see the battle as NBC telecasts Breeders' Cup Preview Day. But while the sport and the network would love this to be the start of an exciting rivalry, the Gold Cup will probably turn into a runaway, proving that Thunder Gulch isn't in the same class with his older rival. He is unlikely to beat Cigar today, in the Breeders' Cup, or ever.
By many standards, Thunder Gulch has been an impressive performer this year. In nine starts he has won seven major stakes, including the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, earning $2.6 million. Not only is he consistent, he is a gutsy battler--the type all horsemen respect. Bill Mott, Cigar's trainer, extolled him: "He's as gritty and tough a horse as you've seen all year. If it ever does come down to the wire you know he's going to be digging in."
But it's not going to come down to the wire. Thunder Gulch has compiled his good-looking record by beating a thoroughly undistinguished crop of 3-year-old-horses such as Suave Prospect, Tejano Run, Pyramid Peak and Judge T.C. In many cases he has had to struggle to score his victories. Now he's moving from Class AAA ball to the major leagues.
Cigar, however, has dominated horses of unquestioned merit as he has put together a ten-race winning streak. Concern won the Breeders' Cup Classic last year, but Cigar has trounced him four straight times. Silver Goblin had won eight races in a row, by a combined total of 42 lengths, until Cigar whipped him in the Oaklawn Handicap. Nobody is likely to stop Cigar from going through the 1995 season undefeated.
While the Gold Cup may not turn out to be an exciting race, many of the other stakes on the Belmont Card may be. Lukas' highly regarded colt, Hennessy, faces Maria's Mon in the Champagne Stakes; the winner will be considered the country's best 2-year-old. Lukas' 2-year-old filly, Golden Attraction, takes on Flat Fleet Feet in the Frizette Stakes.
Awad will be challenged by several formidable European invaders in the Turf Classic. A wide-open field of 15 will contest the Kelso Stakes at one mile on the turf.
But the best race of the day, one filled with intrigue and potential drama, is the Beldame Stakes, which brings together the nation's best older female, Heavenly Prize, and the best 3-year-old, Serena's Song.
Heavenly Prize is the 3-to-5 morning line favorite; an Eclipse Award winner last season, she has overpowered her rivals in New York this season. But she been facing soft competition, while Serena's Song has distinguished herself through a grueling campaign that includes two impressive victories over male rivals.
Trainer Shug McGaughey has managed Heavenly Prize gingerly this year while pointing the filly for Saturday's race and for the Breeders' Cup. He will surely have the filly ready to deliver an optimal performance. By contrast, Serena's Song ought to be ready to tail off, but many handicappers (including me) have been saying that for months, and have been consistently proved wrong. "I think I've got a better line on her than any horse I train," Lukas said. "She defies conventional logic in training. ... She wants to practice hard and play hard."
There is a third formidable entrant in the Beldame: the West Coast invader Lakeway. She was considered the best female of her generation before an injury sidelined her last season, and she appeared to be approaching top form when she ran second in a stakes at Del Mark last month. But Lakeway is a front-running type, like Serena's Song. They could compromise each other's chances and give Heavenly Prize a tactical advantage.
If Heavenly Prize wins impressively, McGaughey said he will be watching Cigar's performance in the Gold Cup with special interest. He is thinking about letting his filly challenge Cigar in the Breeders' Cup Classic instead of running her against members of her own sex in the Distaff. "I've never (believed) in ducking just one horse," he said, meaning that he wouldn't avoid the Classic just because of Cigar's formidable presence. By the end of the day, McGaughey may be reconsidering this position.