09/19/2002 11:00PM

Atlantic crossing not necessarily dream trip


PHOENIX - As Breeders' Cup Day nears, the American contingent must be making a collective "gulp!" at the prospect of what's coming across the ocean to do battle at Arlington Park in Chicago.

Just days after a historic seventh straight Group 1 win, Rock of Gibraltar, obviously the world's best miler and maybe the world's top horse, was said to be on target for an invasion of the Breeders' Cup Mile. He will likely have one more prep in England, then it's look out, Yanks.

But it hasn't stopped there. Even with the plans of top Godolphin runners Grandera and Sakhee uncertain, the European contingent may be the strongest ever.

Banks Hill, last year's dominating Filly and Mare Turf winner, is coming to defend her crown. We will apparently get a preview, because she is pointing to next Saturday's Flower Bowl at Belmont, and if the turf isn't firm there, she could go instead the following weekend in Oak Tree's Yellow Ribbon.

Banks Hill, a 4-year-old filly, most recently finished second, a half-length behind Rock of Gibraltar, in the Prix du Moulin de Longchamp on Sept. 8. Before that, she defeated males in the Prix Jacques le Marois at Deauville. Regardless of what her next race is, Banks Hill will remain in the United States between it and the Breeders' Cup, her trainer, Andre Fabre, said.

Godolphin's top-class 3-year-old filly Kazzia, winner of the 1000 Guineas and English Oaks, but denied a chance at the St. Leger because of a foot ailment, is also reportedly coming over for the Flower Bowl and then the Breeders' Cup.

Sulamani, the Prix Niel winner and likely favorite for the Arc, is reportedly targeting the Breeders' Cup Turf if all goes well in the Arc. Plans remain in flux for Nayef, maybe the best distance horse in Europe, who may take a run at the Turf or Classic, or stay in Europe for another big race.

Just when you thought it couldn't get any more troubling for the U.S. contingent, there is word that top stayer Golan may well skip the Oct. 6 Arc in favor of the Breeders' Cup Turf.

His trainer, Michael Stoute, said plans for Golan, winner of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, were "up in the air." Golan races in the colors of the estate of the late Lord Weinstock, but a major share is held by Coolmore Farm, where he will retire next year. The Japan Cup has always been the ultimate objective for Golan, but Coolmore wants to avoid an Arc duel between him and its ace 3-year-old, High Chaparral.

High Chaparral is no cinch to go in the Arc, either. The winner of both the Epsom and Irish derbies, he was not supplemented to Sunday's Prix du Prince d'Orange at Longchamp, the race he was expected to use as his Arc prep after having missed last Sunday's Prix Niel because of a bad blood count.

If High Chaparral does not run in the Arc, Golan probably would. Stay tuned.

Does all this mean I envision a European sweep of the three turf races? Well, not necessarily. Sure, Rock of Gibraltar, Banks Hill, Golan, Sulamani, Nayef, and Kazzia rank as six of the top 10 runners in Europe. But remember, other supposed European royalty such as Dancing Brave, Zilzal, Warning, Indian Skimmer, and Trempolino came to the United States and lost. It's got nothing to do with talent; it has everything to do with the situation.

Most of the European contenders have had a full, rigorous year. After all, they have their target races. Their connections would love to win a Breeder's Cup race, but for the most part it's an afterthought for the Europeans.

Would it be surprising if this year the Breeders' Cup were being held in Europe and we sent over War Emblem, Came Home, Medaglia d'Oro, Good Journey, With Anticipation, Orientate, Beat Hollow, Sarafan, Golden Apples, and Astra and they all lost? Of course it wouldn't. It's understood that there are obstacles in terms of shipping, environment, track surfaces, etc. As good as Rock of Gibraltar and the others are, they must still overcome a lot.

There are ways to measure how good the European horses are. Noverre is considered one of Europe's top middle-distance horses, having chased Rock of Gibraltar, Nayef, and Golan without being embarrassed. But he shipped to Woodbine a couple weeks ago for the Atto Mile and couldn't be found against Good Journey, a real nice horse but one who as yet hasn't been compared to Val Royal, Silic, or even Beat Hollow.

Godolphin sent Tobougg, a quality runner, to Belmont to face With Anticipation in the Grade 1 Man o' War last week. At the finish he was nowhere.

This isn't to knock them - far from it. They're good horses. But it shows what they're up against coming into our backyard, going up against our best. Maybe on paper Rock of Gibraltar, Golan, and Sulamani are superior to Beat Hollow, Sarafan, and With Anticipation. But that's on paper. Let's see what happens in Chicago.