ELMONT, N.Y. -- Too bad Pope John Paul II visited Aqueduct a couple of weeks ago instead of planning a stop tomorrow at Belmont Park.
He might have been able to bestow a papal blessing on Irish filly Ridgewood Pearl, who will run in the Breeders' Cup Mile in the pontifical yellow and white colors.
The pope doesn't own the horse, who is favored over her 13 rivals in the Mile. But, one of the pope's Irish faithful, Sean Coughlan, is an intensely religious man, and carries his devotion with him to the track.
Coughlan, and his wife, Anne, bred and own "Pearl" and believe in trying to get "all the religious help possible" not only for themselves, but also their horses.
Coughlan, who left Ireland as a young man and arrived in England in 1957 "with a packet of cigarettes in one pocket, and not a shilling in the other," is now retired after making his fortune in the road construction business. He says he and his wife live in a modest house about 25 miles from Dublin, and board their few broodmares and foals at a nearby farm.
Jon Lees, who is the main racing correspondent for the British Press Association and a relative of the Coughlans, describes them as "down-to-earth Irish folk." But Lees added that Coughlan is "a pretty wealthy bloke."
Ridgewood Pearl has added to his coffers. The 3-year-old filly has traveled the continent this year, winning three Group I stakes in three different countries -- Ireland, England and France -- and has earned $659,302, as well as the reputation of being Europe's top filly.
But the question is whether "Pearl" is still fresh enough after a hard campaign to pull off a Breeders' Cup win.
Before "Pearl" ran in the Group I Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot in June, Coughlan asked a priest to bless the horse. She won and set a track record.
When "Pearl" was shipped to France last month, and ran in the Group I Prix du Moulin de Longchamp, Coughlan visited the holy shrine at Lourdes and prayed before the race. "Pearl" won again, and came close to breaking another track mark.
Now, not only has Coughlan prayed for the filly in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, but he is carrying holy water in his pocket from Lourdes and plans to let the horse drink it before the race.
As an added precaution during the race, jockey John Murtagh will be carrying a miraculous medal from Lourdes in his helmet.
"And I'll have one in my pocket," Coughlan said.
However, some people think "Pearl" might have already used up her share of divine intervention this week.
On Wednesday, when the French colt Tamure dumped his rider during morning training hours, he turned and galloped head on toward an oncoming "Pearl." Right before a possible collision, Tamure slowed down, and ducked to the outside rail.
John Oxx Jr., who trains Ridgewood Pearl and about 120 other horses in Ireland, is not about to dismiss any guidance from above, especially in his first Breeders' Cup run.
Oxx has had runners at Laurel Park -- Julie La Rousse, who was second in the All Along Stakes, and George Augustus, third in the Laurel Turf Cup. But this is his first try in the $1 million Mile.
There is some concern whether "Pearl," a long, massive-looking filly, can handle the Belmont turns. "She's never raced left-handed, although we've been training her left-handed at home," Oxx said. Then, after winning the three Group I stakes, she was beaten by the colt Bahri in her last start.
The Mile, some English journalists said yesterday, is coming at the end of a long season for her. At Ladbrokes, the English betting shop, "Pearl" is listed the third choice in the Mile behind California-based Fastness and Cherokee Rose.
The hot Euro-horse in the Mile is Cherokee Rose, a French sprinter, who English TV commentator Brough Scott said
yesterday reminds him of a previous European Mile winner, Last Tycoon. Jim Crispe, representing the International Racing Bureau, likes another horse, Shaanxi, who has been beaten by Ridgewood Pearl but is regarded as an improving runner.
All agree that English 1,000 Guineas winner Harayir will dislike the soft turf and that Ridgewood Pearl, Cherokee Rose and Shaanxi should handle it just fine.
Oxx said his horse prefers to lay just off the lead, but the question is: Who is going to set the pace? Both the European and American entries seem to be horses that want to come from behind, and the pace, consequently, could be "false" and agonizingly slow.
But there are many unknowns regarding the European horses, and it is usually difficult to predict just what they'll do.
Last year, British owner Gerald Leigh downplayed the chances of any of the European horses.
"The Breeders' Cup is at the end of our season," he said. "The horses are tired and the trainers basically come to the States to party and have a good time."
That said, Leigh's horse, Barathea, promptly took the track on Breeders' Cup day, exploded with a burst of speed in the final furlong and won the Mile, returning a $22.80 mutuel.
9- He did it, too, without a papal blessing.
12th Breeders' Cup
Where: Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y.
Card: There are seven races worth a total of $10 million. The event was founded 12 years ago by horse breeder John Gaines as a fall championship series.
Feature: $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic, headed by Cigar, the Maryland-bred 5-year-old who is undefeated in nine races in 1995.
Other races: Juvenile Fillies, Sprint, Distaff, Mile, Juvenile Colts and Turf.
Post time: The post for the first race, the Juvenile Fillies, is 11:55 a.m. The last race, the Classic, goes off at 3:10 p.m.
4( TV: Channel 11, 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.