07/18/2002 11:00PM

Of cabbages and kings - and Sakhee

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NEW YORK - It is Europe's midsummer showpiece and it ranks as highly as its early autumn rival, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, as one of the best 1 1/2-mile races in the world.

The King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes shines as brightly as any of the stones mined by its South African sponsors DeBeers. Its roll call of winners reads like a Who's Who of European racing since its inception in 1951: Ribot, Nijinsky, Mill Reef, Brigadier Gerard, Dahlia (twice), Shergar, Dancing Brave, Nashwan, Generous, Lammtarra, Swain (twice), and Daylami.

The race will have its 52nd running at Ascot this Saturday, absent the presence of one of its namesakes, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who died in March. The equine stars, however, will be out in force, although there is some question about which of the two Godolphin candidates, Sakhee and Grandera, will line up for the third leg of the sponsorless World Series Racing Championship.

Sakhee, who has been absent from the races since his dull third behind Street Cry in the Dubai World Cup on March 23, will apparently run only if the ground is soft. Simon Crisford called Sakhee's "well-documented knee troubles" the source of the colt's distaste for firm ground, so with the weather in southern England on the fine side these days, the wait may be even longer for the reappearance of 2001's Arc winner.

That would be a pity, because it would deprive Sakhee of the chance to become the seventh horse in history to win both the King George and the Arc. That trick has been turned by Ribot, Ballymoss, Mill Reef, Dancing Brave, Lammtarra, and Montjeu.

But only Ribot and Montjeu were able to win both races in different years. In fact, Ribot was so good he won the Arc in 1955, the King George in 1956, and then completed his Arc double by winning a few months after his Ascot triumph. If Sakhee were to win the King George on Saturday, he would have an opportunity to match Ribot's feat at Longchamp on Oct. 6.

While the Godolphin braintrust is keenly aware of history, it also does what is best for its horses. So if the weather remains nice at Ascot, Grandera will be the Godolphin representative, unless Godolphin decides to run both should the ground come up good. That was the implication Friday when Crisford announced that Jamie Spencer would ride Prince of Wales's Stakes winner Grandera, but only if Sakhee were running as well. Frankie Dettori will be aboard Sakhee, but is very likely to ride Grandera if Grandera is the only Godolphin entry.

There is more Maktoum-inspired drama in the King George, and that is the participation of Nayef, owned by Hamdan Al Maktoum. The winner of the Dubai Sheema Classic, Nayef lost much of his shine when third in the Tattersalls Gold Cup and fourth in the Prince of Wales. Sheikh Hamdan, who has a big say at Godolphin, may not want to risk another loss to what almost amounts to stablemates in Sakhee and Grandera.

The King George lost some of its luster when Aidan O'Brien decided not to run his Epsom and Irish Derby winner High Chaparral. Instead, he will point to the Irish Champion Stakes on Sept. 7 as his Arc prep.

French Derby winner Sulamani will also be missing from Ascot. His trainer Pascal Bary will give him the traditional French summer vacation before preparing him for the Arc in the Prix Niel on Sept. 15. However, Aquarelliste will run, but only because she lost the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud.

Earlier this week owner Alec Wildenstein explained the situation concerning Aquarelliste, last year's Arc runner-up. He blamed her third-place finish at Saint-Cloud on her inability to handle the left-handed course. That was the first time Aquarelliste, the 2001 French Oaks winner, had raced counterclockwise and it may have cost her a trip to the Breeders' Cup.

Wildenstein said that if Aquarelliste had won the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, she would have skipped the King George in favor of the Prix Foy and the Arc, followed by "an international campaign" - meaning the Breeders' Cup Turf and/or the Japan Cup, both of which are run on left-handed tracks. Now it seems that the Arc will be her ultimate objective.

However, Sulamani, owned by the Niarchos Family, still has designs on Arlington Park for the Turf, should all go well between now and Oct. 26.

Two who have been confirmed for the King George come rain or come shine are Boreal and Zindabad. Boreal is the fearsome German-bred winner of the Coronation Cup, while Zindabad was a course and distance winner last time out in the Group 2 Hardwicke Stakes.

But what this year's King George boils down to is the participation of Sakhee, and his condition. Because if last year's European champion gets the ground he likes and is back to where he was last summer and fall, he will add his name to those of the luminaries listed above.