05/31/2001 12:00AM

America, land of turf opportunity


ELMONT, N.Y. - In an era of specialization, Chris Clement appears to have carved out a successful niche for himself on the grass.

He trains for a number of European owners who enjoy racing a few horses in the United States. In Europe, the main thrust in racing is the classics. If a horse is a classic winner or classic-placed, he or she can be retired almost immediately and bred. Opportunities in racing are limited for older horses who are not classic winners.

For a number of reasons, the situation is different in this country. There are many opportunities for older horses, so it makes sense for Europeans to think of the U.S. for racing their 4-year-olds. Most of these horses raced on the grass in Europe and it is reasonable to think of them in that context when they arrive here.

Clement, the son of one of France's finest trainers, grew up and had his first experience in that background. He traveled and found there is more opportunity for young horsemen in this country, so he set up shop here 10 years ago and has made steady progress. Last season his public stable earned over $4 million, ranking him in the top 20, and his winning percentage, at almost 19, was excellent.

Saturday's $150,000 Sheepshead Bay Handicap for fillies and mares at 1 3/8 miles on the grass is a typical exercise for Clement, who won this feature twice before, with Trampoli in 1993 and with Lisieux Rose last year. He plans to start Aiglonne and Playact, and either could win it for they are coming to their race the right way.

Aiglonne, a 4-year-old daughter of Silver Hawk, races for Charles DeMoussac, whose late father campaigned the Arc de Triomphe winner, Trempolino. A Group 3 stakes winner in France, she was flown to the U.S. last fall and made one start shortly after her arrival. A period of acclimatization followed and she gave a good account of herself in the Grade 2 Orchid Handicap at Gulfstream. Based on that form, the stretch-running Aiglonne, who will be ridden by Robbie Davis, could be right there.

Playact, a 4-year-old filly by Hernando, races for Lady O'Reilly of Ireland, who has had several nice horses on both sides of the Atlantic.

Trained in France by Chris Clement's brother, Nicolas, Playact ran well in Group 2 company at Longchamp. She arrived in the U.S. last fall, adapted to new surroundings over the winter, and ran well in two starts at Keeneland this spring. She closed briskly and just missed in the Bewitch Stakes. John Velasquez has the mount on Playact, who would benefit from a realistic pace up front.