02/28/2003 12:00AM

Are any Euros serious Derby prospects?


NEW YORK - The appearance of six horses trained by Aidan O'Brien on the list of nominees to Turfway Park's Lane's End Stakes prompted speculation that we might see one of his runners in the Kentucky Derby.

That idea was quashed by a Ballydoyle spokesman on Wednesday, however, who said, "Aidan has no plans for the Kentucky Derby at this time." That statement was confirmed to a certain extent the same day when Hold That Tiger, one of the six O'Brien nominees to the Lane's End, was made a heavy early favorite to win the 2000 Guineas, the one-mile British classic that will be run on Derby Day.

There is reason to believe The Thoroughbred Corporation may be thinking of Elusive City as a possible backup should its leading Derby candidate, Kafwain, go astray in the next few weeks. The winner of the Group 1 Prix Morny at Deauville, Elusive City, a son of Elusive Quality, had won his maiden on the Lingfield all-weather in his July debut. He has since been stripped of that win along with another in the Group 2 Richmond Stakes on turf, but he was entered in a one-mile conditions race on dirt at Lingfield on Saturday.

His trainer, Gerard Butler, decided not to run Elusive City, but instead to await the Spring Cup, a seven-furlong allowance worth $120,000 over the same Lingfield dirt track on March 15.

That is a strange way to begin making one's way to the 2000 Guineas, especially as the Spring Cup serves as a prep for the April 5 Fosters International, the race Castle Gandolfo used as his Derby prep last year. While Butler said that he would use the Spring Cup as a prep for one of the traditional Guineas preps, the Craven Stakes or the Greenham Stakes, he also said that "if Richard Mulhall changes his mind, Elusive City could be rerouted." Elusive City is not nominated to the Triple Crown, but a final nominating stage closes on March 29.

In Elusive City's absence, two Derby nominees were scheduled to run in Saturday's Lingfield allowance. While Agilis can be dismissed as a Derby candidate, Pretence, trained by Jeremy Noseda, is not wholly out of the picture. He won his maiden on dirt in January and was even more impressive on Feb. 22 when he won a one-mile handicap on the Lingfield all-weather course by four lengths. Pretence would, however, have to show marked improvement to make it to Churchill Downs.

March 29, the closing date for late nominations to the Derby, is also the day of the UAE Derby, from which Godolphin will have its last chance to determine which, if any, of its 3-year-olds will be Kentucky-bound. In the meantime, a further weeding out of its Derby contenders will take place in the 1 1/8-mile Al Bastikiya on March 8.

Al Saqaar, the sharp winner of a one-mile maiden at Nad Al Sheba on Feb. 13, could show up in that race. Western Diplomat and Bourbonnais, second and third, respectively, in the UAE 2000 Guineas, will probably wait for the UAE Derby, although Saeed bin Suroor was quoted this week as saying that Bourbonnais looked a likely candidate for either the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket or the French equivalent at Longchamp on May 11.

UAE 2000 Guineas winner Victory Moon, a South African-bred Southern Hemisphere 3-year-old who is ineligible for the Kentucky Derby, will line up for the UAE version on March 29 when he could meet a pair of American-trained 3-year-olds.

Christophe Clement is contemplating sending Region of Merit, a Touch Gold colt, to Dubai for the $2 million, 1 1/4-mile Group 2 race. The winner of two allowance races at Gulfstream this winter, Region of Merit could be joined by the Elliott Walden-trained Brazilian-bred Byzantium.

A Group 1 winner going a mile on turf at Ciudad Jardim, Byzantium failed against older horses in his Gulfstream debut on Feb. 17. Like Victory Moon, he is a Southern Hemisphere 3-year-old and ineligible for the Derby, so a trip to Nad Al Sheba in hopes of landing a $1.2 million first prize makes some sense.

The Emirates Racing Association is billing its March 8 Nad Al Sheba card as Super Saturday. In addition to the Al Bastikiya, there will be preps for the other five races on Dubai World Cup night. The most highly anticipated race will be Round 3 of the Maktoum Challenge, in which French Derby winner Sulamani will make his first start on dirt.

While much of the attention has been focused on the Kentucky Derby of late, the nominations to the Kentucky Oaks were announced this week. Among the 139 names on the list were eight of Suroor's Godolphin fillies. Most prominent is Danuta, the Sunday Silence filly who made off with the Moonshell Mile by 7 1/4 lengths. She could meet Echoes in Eternity, an easy Newmarket maiden winner and fellow Oaks nominee, in the UAE 1000 Guineas on March 13 or wait for the 1 1/8-mile UAE Oaks on April 3.

Arlington Park has once again signed on to serve as the hub for the Dubai Wold Cup simulcast. While the UAE Derby will only be shown on tape delay without betting, the program will begin at 10 a.m. Eastern with the Dubai Sheema Classic followed by the Dubai Golden Shaheen at 11:10, the Dubai Duty Free at 11:50, and the World Cup at 12:40 p.m.

Melbourne Cup winner Media Puzzle, sent home from Dubai to Ireland after suffering a leg knock, is now back in contention for the 1 1/2-mile Sheema Classic. Dermot Weld has said that he is also considering the San Juan Capistrano Handicap at Santa Anita on April 20 for Media Puzzle. If anyone can pull off a Melbourne Cup/Sheema Classic/San Juan Capistrano triple, it is Weld, a trainer who takes the international game seriously.