09/05/2008 12:00AM

For 3-year-olds, the easy way out

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NEW YORK – While Curlin and Big Brown continue to avoid each other like the plague on the American front, this weekend’s action in Europe is packed with intergenerational rivalries that began as long as a month ago. New Approach, rated by Timeform as co-highweight European 3-year-old, tackles Europe’s leading older horse Duke of Marmalade for the second time in Saturday’s Irish Champion Stakes, while the 4-year-old Darjina will be tested for the second time by 3-year-old fillies Goldikova and Natagora, as well as by the 3-year-old colt Henrythenavigator – who like New Approach is rated at 131 by Timeform – in Sunday’s Prix du Moulin de Longchamp.

Gone are the days when American trainers and owners had the guts to race 3-year-olds like Affirmed against 4-year-olds like Seattle Slew, as occcurred on Sept. 17, 1978 in the Marlboro Cup. Now we get the nation’s leading 3-year-old opting for an ungraded turf stake at Monmouth to prepare for a Breeders’ Cup Classic that may or may not include the nation’s leading older horse.

Curlin, by the way, is rated 134 by Timeform, one pound better than Duke of Marmalade, while Big Brown has a 132 rating, one pound better than Henrythenavigator and New Approach. Given the questionable competition Curlin and Big Brown have faced all year long, those ratings appear to be on the high side, as does Curlin’s 130-127 lead over Duke of Marmalade in the latest official world rankings issued by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, who rate Big Brown and New Approach even at 126 with Henrythenavigator at 124.

Curlin was beating bums in Nad al Sheba’s Jaguar Trophy Handicap and Group 2 types in both the Dubai World Cup and the Stephen Foster. In Red Rocks he lost the Man o’ War to a horse considered a low-end Group 2 type in Europe, while in the Woodward he struggled through a 14-second final furlong to beat a Past the Point who had won an optional claimer in his previous outing.

Big Brown was beating a single Grade 2 winner, Cool Coal Man, when he won the Haskell Invitational, and will be meeting much weaker in the Monmouth Stakes next week. That is hardly the sort of competition a two-time classic winner should be facing at this time of year. It might be argued that Curlin and Big Brown are the only genuine Grade 1 colts running on dirt in the United States. If so, their avoidance of each other suggests that fear of losing has overcome their connections’ desire for victory.

Some aren’t afraid to cross Atlantic

While Curlin and every other American-trained Thoroughbred will avoid Europe this year, there are some American owners who are competing at the top level across the Atlantic.

Most of George Strawbridge’s best horses in recent years have been trained in Europe. John Gosden has Strawbridge’s St. Leger and Princess of Wales’s winner Lucarno going in the Grosser Preis von Baden on Sunday. Chantilly-based Jonathan Pease conditioned Strawbridge’s Montare to win the Group 1 Prix Royal-Oak and the Group 2 Prix Chaudenay once each and the Group 2 Prix du Conseil de Paris twice between 2005 and 2007. Sleeping Indian won the Group 2 Challenge Stakes in 2006 for Gosden, who won the Group 3 Sweet Solera Stakes for Strawbridge on Aug. 9 by six lengths with Rainbow View, a performance so good it made her the favorite for next year’s 1000 Guineas with some bookies.

Bert and Diana Firestone have long had horses in Ireland with Dermot Weld. That team scored its biggest victory in years last month at Arlington when Winchester cruised to a 7 1/4-length victory in the Secretariat Stakes, a performance so overwhelming it would win Winchester an Eclipse Award as best 3-year-old American turf horse if there were such a thing. Roy and Gretchen Jackson’s Lael Stable campaigned Superstar Leo in England with William Haggas to win the Group 2 Flying Childers Stakes in 2000 and finish second as a 2-year-old filly against older colts in the Group 1 Prix de l’Abbaye de Longchamp. Lael currently has Superstar Leo’s daughter Enticing, the winner of two Group 3 sprints, with Haggas. On Sunday, Barry Irwin’s Team Valor has Captain’s Lover in Longchamp’s Group 3 Prix du Pin. A Group 1 winner in South Africa, Captain’s Lover is under the care of Andre Fabre.

But there is one less American owner in Europe this week after Bob McNair sold his Stonerside Stable to Sheikh Mohammed. That means that Raven’s Pass, winner of the Group 2 Celebration Mile at Goodwood two weeks ago and runner-up in three Group 1 miles this season, and Group 2 Ribblesdale Stakes winner Michita are no longer American-owned. McNair follows in the footsteps of Australia’s Bob Ingham, who in March sold his Woodlands Stud to the Sheikh. Meanwhile Baron Edouard de Rothschild is in the process of selling his Andre Fabre-run Chantilly stable to Sheikh Mohammed. It seems that no one is immune to the lure the Maktoum dirham.