07/02/2002 11:00PM

Argentine racing still shows vital signs


BUENOS AIRES, Arg. - While tears are being shed over the political and financial situation of Argentina, there is no need to cry for Argentine racing. At least, not yet.

Saturday's Carreras de las Estrellas at the Hipodromo Argentino, or Palermo Racecourse, in Buenos Aires offered 639,200 pesos in prize money for six championship races. Until January, that would have translated into $639,200, but the unprecedented financial crisis in Argentina has seen the value of the peso plummet to record lows. The true dollar value of the this year's Estrellas, the Argentine version of the Breeders' Cup, was just $167,790.

The crisis has not yet affected the quality of Argentine racing, nor has it dimmed enthusiasm for the sport among the professional class. Saturday's card produced some top-class winners, the most impressive of whom will soon be displaying his talent in the United States.

Oh Take, the 2 1/2-length winner of the 1 1/4-mile $71,400 Estrellas Classic, fits the profile of an international Thoroughbred in every sense. A Brazilian-bred by Latin American, trained by the Argentine-based Brazilian Jose Alves and ridden by the Uruguayan Julio Mendez, Oh Take was purchased a week before the Classic by Nelson Bunker Hunt. Backed late to go off as the 2.70-1 favorite, he came flying on the outside to collar Rodion at the furlong pole and will soon be on his way to join Ron McAnally in California.

The Carreras de las Estrellas, or "Races of the Stars," alternates annually between the dirt track at Palermo and the turf course 10 miles up the road in suburban San Isidro. Not that it would have made much difference to Oh Take if he had had to run on turf. Twice placed in one-mile group races on the San Isidro turf while still eligible for nonwinners-of-two, Oh Take had most recently taken the Group 2 Clasico Otono by five lengths over the Estrellas Classic course and distance.

Lightly raced with three victories and five seconds in 12 starts, Oh Take turned 4 on July 1 on the Southern Hemisphere clock, although he has been that age since January 1 by Northern Hemisphere standards. A 10-furlong specialist, he would not be out of place in a race like the Pacific Classic.

Alves was the training star of the day as he also sent out Freddy to win the Estrellas Juvenile. The locals let this son of champion South American sire Roy get away at 10.45-1 despite his having won his maiden first time out over the one-mile Palermo course and distance by six lengths on May 17. Perhaps they thought that the 12-length maiden score of the 2-1 Equal Stripes on June 14 or the Group 1 victory of the 4-5 choice Rodeno on April 20 merited closer attention, but Freddy put them to shame with a four-length triumph in the good time of 1:35.41 over Palermo's tiring surface. Alves said Freddy may run in the Polla de Potrillos, the Argentine dirt equivalent of the 2000 Guineas. Freddy just turned 3 on the Southern Hemisphere timetable.

Freddy would be an ideal candidate for the main track in North America, but as he is six months younger than Northern Hemisphere 3-year-olds, he will remain in Argentina to take advantage of the classic program there. However, the decline of the Argentine peso is an added incentive for North Americans to consider investing in Argentine bloodstock, as well as for Argentine owners to consider selling their horses. Freddy's Juvenile triumph would have earned $80,000 in pre-crisis Argentina. Today, he brought his owners at Haras La Providencia just $21,000. If Argentine owners are to remain competitive on an international level, they will have to find a way to make up the difference.

Miss Terrible was everybody's idea of the day's best bet in the Estrellas Juvenile Fillies. The winner of four of her five starts, including Group 1 victories on turf and dirt in her last three runs, the daughter of the Mr. Prospector sire Numerous was the 35-100 favorite coupled with entrymate Virginia Fitz. Having disposed of La Danzadora approaching the eighth-pole, Miss Terrible looked poised to win laughing once again when Virginia Fitz came charging. Although Virginia Fitz's move came too late, she was only a length behind at the line in just her second start. There is a feeling that Miss Terrible, sure to be named Argentina's champion 2-year-old filly, will not beat her fast-improving stablemate again. In fact, Virginia Fitz, by Fitzcarraldo from the female family of Alysheba, is another who looks perfectly suited to the main track in North America.

Tanganyika was the subject of American interest even before her good-looking four-length romp in the 1 1/4-mile Estrellas Distaff. Like the David Donk-trained Argentine-bred Madagascar, who was the 6 1/4-length winner of a 1 1/8-mile Belmont allowance last month in a time just two-fifths of a second off the track record, Tanganyika is by the Farnesio sire Interprete. Her value since Saturday has only increased.

Like the rest of Argentina, racing must discover a way to survive and overcome the crisis the country is now suffering. Selling horses to Americans is only a short-term answer for the Thoroughbred industry, which is ultimately at the mercy of political and economic forces. The crisis in Argentina is real, and it threatens to get worse unless the the political and business elites can find common cause with a disaffected populace that has seen their lifetime savings shaved by 75 percent.

As a result, attendance and betting handle are at all-time lows in a game that has always been the provenance of Argentine owners and breeders, the most prominent of which, Haras La Quebrada, will be the subject of the second part of this series on Sunday.