02/14/2003 12:00AM

Benton: Threat of war won't cancel World Cup

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NEW YORK - The sword rattling that has the world expecting war to break out in Iraq sometime during the next month has not deterred the Emirates Racing Association from going full speed ahead with its plans for Dubai World Cup night at Nad Al Sheba on March 29.

Last week, Les Benton, chairman of the Dubai World Cup Committee, said the $13.5 million World Cup program would come off as scheduled, even in the event of war. Benton, an Australian, pointed out that the southern coast of Iraq was 860 miles from Dubai and that a war centered around Baghdad would have as much effect on the World Cup as a war in Malaysia might have on the running of the Melbourne Cup, which is to say, none at all.

He made that statement shortly before the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is one, announced along with Saudi Arabia that it would take up arms to defend Kuwait if that country were to be attacked by Iraq during a war.

If that scenario were to unfold, Saddam Hussein might come to the conclusion that Dubai is a little too close to Baghdad for comfort. Some 33,000 people are expected at Nad Al Sheba for the Dubai World Cup, and while every security precaution will be taken by the governments of Dubai and the United Arab Emirates - of which Godolphin head Sheikh Mohammed is the defense minister - some Americans are already feeling a bit nervous about sending their horses to Dubai.

On Thursday, Bobby Frankel, trainer of World Cup invitee Medaglia d'Oro, said that he is monitoring the situation in the Middle East closely, and that a decision as to whether Medaglia d'Oro will travel to the World Cup or stay at home for the Santa Anita Handicap on March 1 has not yet been made. Of course, with four weeks between the Big Cap and the World Cup, Medaglia d'Oro, winner of the Strub Stakes, could run in both races if war in the Mideast is averted.

Bob Baffert faces the same situation as Frankel with San Antonio Handicap winner Congaree.

The absence of any big United States-based horses from the Dubai World Cup would be a blow to the world's richest race. Cigar's victory in the inaugural World Cup in 1996 put Dubai on the international racing map. Subsequent victories by the Baffert-trained Silver Charm and Captain Steve have made the race something of a U.S. versus Godolphin showdown. When American horses are not winning it, Maktoum-owned runners such as Singspiel, Almutawakel, Dubai Millennium, and Street Cry are. The World Cup would lose luster this time around if the best Maktoum runners were to find themselves running against European turf horses and local second stringers.

Should Congaree and Medaglia d'Oro make the trip east, this year's $6 million World Cup would be the most competitive in the race's brief eight-year history. Godolphin is preparing Moon Ballad, Thursday's six-length Round 2 Maktoum Challenge winner, and Sulamani, purchased following the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, for the race. Hamdan Al Maktoum and his English trainer Marcus Tregoning have had Nayef in Dubai since December getting ready for a shot at the big money.

Sulamani is a most intriguing prospect. Pried away from the Niarchos family for an undisclosed price, the French Derby winner rates as many observers' idea of the best older horse in Europe this season. He has been training well for Saeed bin Suroor at Al Quoz and will make his seasonal debut in Round 3 of the Maktoum Challenge March 8 over the World Cup course and distance.

It will be the first start on dirt for the 4-year-old son of Hernando, who finished second to Godolphin's Marienbard in the Arc.

Nayef, a 5-year-old Kentucky-bred son of Gulch and Height of Fashion, won the Juddmonte International, Champion Stakes, and Dubai Sheema Classic. He also would be making his dirt debut in the World Cup.

Godolphin's Derby hopes

Godolphin suffered a setback in its Kentucky Derby plans when six of its Triple Crown nominees were beaten by Victory Moon in the UAE 2000 Guineas on Thursday. Western Diplomat, a seven-length maiden winner at Ayr in his only previous start, looked like the winner at the sixteenth pole, but Victory Moon ran him down late. Suroor said that his horses were only 70- to 80-percent fit for the Guineas and will have improved for the effort. Suroor also must have high hopes for Al Saqaar, who was an 8 1/4-length winner of a one-mile maiden race earlier on the card in a time that was .44 of a second faster than Victory Moon's.

Frankie Dettori said afterward that Al Saqaar, a half-brother to 2000 UAE Derby winner China Visit, "has a bright future." Al Saqaar will have to progress rapidly to make it to Churchill Downs on May 3, but the son of Quiet American may be Godolphin's best chance this year.