12/23/2004 12:00AM

Bago, Doyen top Euros in so-so year

Bago wins the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. But like all European horses this year, his stardom was fleeting.

NEW YORK - The 2004 European racing season was filled with strong supporting players but lacked a star. At one stage or another Haafhd, North Light, Grey Swallow, Attraction, Soviet Song, Azamour, Rakti, Doyen, Sulamani, and Bago each had an hour in the limelight, but none maintained top form throughout the year. And only Doyen could establish superiority at any given distance.

Perhaps it was last year's unprepossessing 2-year-olds who stamped the 2004 season with a lack of quality. Bago was the 2003 juvenile champion with an International Classification rating of only 121, two pounds fewer than Oasis Dream's 123 in 2002 and five pounds fewer than Johannesburg's 126 in 2001. While Bago did eventually live up to his promise with a gallant if unspectacular victory in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, there was precious little improvement from most of the rest of 2003's leading juveniles. Some, like One Cool Cat, Milk It Mick, Three Valleys and American Post, the lucky winner of the French 2000 Guineas in May, were nowhere to be seen once autumn leaves started changing colors.

The early retirement of Dalakhani and Alamshar had thinned the ranks of the best older horses. Neither the new 3-year-olds nor any of their older brethren or sisters, such as Six Perfections, were able to match the performances of those two. Nor could they duplicate the achievements of the retired Falbrav or High Chaparral.

Haafhd was the first to lay claim to Europe's leading-horse honors. Trained by Barry Hills, Haafhd set the spring ablaze, winning the Group 3 Craven Stakes and the 2000 Guineas, both over Newmarket's hallowed Rowley Mile. Failures in both the St. James's Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot and the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood dulled Haafhd's classic credentials, but perhaps he was just homesick for Newmarket. After a 2 1/2-month layoff, he returned there and won the prestigious Champion Stakes by 2 1/2 lengths, carrying his speed over 1 1/4 miles. But it would be difficult to see Haafhd as anything more than an accomplished performer, especially as he failed to beat any of 2004's leading lights in his two big-race victories.

North Light gave trainer Michael Stoute his second successive Epsom Derby and fourth overall. North Light was next a game if disappointing second by a half-length to Grey Swallow in the Irish Derby. That neither he nor Grey Swallow won after their respective derby victories tells a tale.

In France, Bago's highly anticipated 3-year-old debut was delayed by injury, but his Chantilly reappearance came with a bang. It was on June 6, French Derby Day, that Bago spanked Cacique by three lengths in the 1 1/8-mile Group 1 Prix Jean Prat. That was a mere prelude to his half-length triumph over the same rival in the 1 1/4-mile Group 1 Grand Prix de Paris.

But Bago lost his perfect 6-for-6 mark in his first try against older horses when he ran fourth behind eventual Canadian International winner Sulamani in the Juddmonte International. And when Bago was beaten a length into third by Valixir in the 1 1/2-mile Group 2 Prix Niel, his Arc victory light seemed to be flickering.

Meanwhile, Voix du Nord had been preparing for a date in the French Derby by adding to his juvenile score in the Criterium de Saint-Cloud with victories in the Group 2 Prix Noailles and the Group 1 Prix Lupin. He looked like a pretty sure thing in the French Derby when disaster struck on the eve of the race.

Out for a pre-race pipe opener at Lamorlaye, Voix du Nord suffered a hairline fracture of his right front pastern, and was out for the rest of the season.

Among the Euro females, Attraction confounded her disbelievers by extending her unbeaten streak to eight, becoming the first filly in history to win both the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket and the Irish 1000 Guineas at The Curragh. Attraction followed that with a triumph in the Group 1 Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot and later took the Group 1 Sun Chariot Stakes. She was, however, defeated by the 4-year-old filly Soviet Song in the Group 1 Falmouth Stakes and failed in her lone start on both soft ground and against older colts when unplaced in Whipper's Group 1 Prix Jacques le Marois.

Soviet Song ranks ahead of her, with victories in three Group 1 miles this year, among them the Sussex Stakes against males. But Soviet Song was soundly beaten by Rakti in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes.

None of France's 3-year-old fillies made much of an impression, but Ouija Board provided a great deal of excitement across the channel. After an astonishing seven-length cakewalk in the English Oaks, she doubled in the Irish Oaks, then closed well to be third in the Arc off a 2 1/2-month layoff. That set her up for a handy score in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, an effort that should earn her not only an Eclipse Award as best turf filly or mare, but the world's highweighted 3-year-old filly ranking on the International Classification.

Sulamani and Rakti each won two Group 1 races this season, but both appeared to be a notch below first class. Not so Sulamani's Godolphin stablemate Doyen.

A Sadler's Wells 4-year-old, Doyen broke the track record for 1 1/2 miles at Ascot when winning the Group 2 Hardwicke Stakes by six lengths at the Royal Meeting in June, then slammed Hard Buck and Sulamani in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes over the Hardwicke course and distance. He looked positioned to waltz off with European honors when Godolphin made a couple of questionable moves.

Through the King George, Doyen had run eight consecutive times at 12 furlongs, winning five of them. Suddenly, as the highest-ranked horse in the world, he was sent back to 1 1/4 miles for the Irish Champion Stakes, in which he finished a dull seventh behind St. James's Palace winner Azamour.

Ruled out of an Arc he had seemed destined to win after the King George, Doyen was announced to be through for the season, but returned instead to finish seventh again, in the 1 1/4-mile Champion Stakes at Newmarket.

Doyen probably still rates as the best 12-furlong horse in the world, but he might have been much more than that if Godolphin hadn't gotten greedy and tried to make him into a 10-furlong champion as well.

Doyen's demise, Sulamani opting for the Canadian International, and the injury to Voix du Nord left Bago to pick up the pieces in the Arc.

Bago and Doyen were probably the best 3-year-old and older horse in Europe, respectively, but neither led his fields as clearly as did Westerner, whose second successive double in the Prix du Cadran and Prix Royal-Oak for trainer Elie Lellouche and owner Ecurie Wildenstein made him Europe's champion stayer.

Somnus rates the nod as Europe's best sprinter, but he is not in the same class as Silent Witness, the Tony Cruz-trained gelding whose second straight win in the Hong Kong Sprint on Dec. 12 extended his unbeaten streak to 12. Silent Witness is admirably consistent, always coming from just off the pace, and almost always winning by between one and two lengths. It is hoped that his owners will send him to Europe this summer in an effort to confirm the widely held belief that he is the best sprinter in the world.

No European recap would be complete without mention of jockey Gary Stevens's abbreviated French season. His teaming with perennial French champion trainer Andre Fabre had been expected to reap big rewards, but Stevens announced that he would be returning to America even before the conclusion of Deauville's August meeting. In five months, Stevens failed to win anything better than a Group 3 for Fabre.

Shamardal, the best of Giant's Causeway's exciting first crop, was the leading juvenile colt in Europe. Winner of the Group 1 Dewhurst Stakes for trainer Mark Johnston, he has joined Godolphin and is wintering in Dubai with new stablemate Dubawi, a Dubai Millennium colt who landed the Group 1 National Stakes at The Curragh.

Divine Proportions, trained by Pascal Bary for the Niarchos Family, took 2-year-old filly honors by dint of two Group 1 wins, the Prix Morny versus colts and the Prix Marcel Boussac against her own gender.