09/26/2002 11:00PM

Competition diluting Arc's attraction

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PARIS - First there was the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, and it ruled supreme as racing's definitive international event. But then came the Japan Cup, the Breeders' Cup, and the Hong Kong Cup.

Since shortly after its inception in 1920, the Arc has been Europe's championship race. Few would dispute its claim to that title today, but the ever increasing international competition from Japan, America, Hong Kong, and even Canada and Australia is having a deleterious effect on the great French event.

This year's Arc is a case in point. As the British would say, it is "cutting up," that is, possible runners are, for one reason or another, being pointed elswhere.

For only the second time in the last 15 years, the Arc will be run minus the Prix Vermeille winner, Pearly Shells, whose trainer, Francois Rohaut, decided not to supplement her for $58,800. This is especially disconcerting because Pearly Shells set a Vermeille stakes record of 2:26.00 on good to firm ground, and it is beginning to look like this year's Arc will be run on similar going.

Ange Gabriel, the winner of the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, France's big midsummer 1 1/2-mile race, will also be missing from the Arc. Ange Gabriel's owners have also declined to ante up the supplementary fee. He will run in the Group 2 Prix du Conseil de Paris on Oct. 20 instead.

Islington, the impressive winner of both the 1 1/4-mile Nassau Stakes and the 1 1/2-mile Yorkshire Oaks, has opted for the 1 1/4-mile Prix de l'Opera on Arc Day. She will use that as a prep for the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, a race that is proving to be a thorn in the Arc's side.

Godolphin's English Oaks winner Kazzia is expected to run in the Filly and Mare Turf. But instead of using the 1 1/2-mile Arc as a prep for that race, she was to use Saturday's 1 1/4-mile Flower Bowl Invitational to prepare for Arlington.

German Derby winner Next Desert will be an Arc absentee due to injury, while Italian Derby winner Rakti looks doubtful after his last-place finish in a 1 3/8-mile conditions race at Milan last Sunday.

Grandera, who just got up to beat Hawk Wing in the Irish Champion Stakes, is being sent by Godolphin to Australia for the Cox Plate on Breeders' Cup Day. Even the defending champion is giving the Arc the cold shoulder. Sakhee, troubled by sore knees throughout the season, is being prepared for the 1 1/4-mile Champion Stakes at Newmarket on Oct. 19, when he could meet Nayef, another horse who fits the Arc profile.

Nayef was only a head behind Golan in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes at the Arc distance. He then beat Golan in the 1 5/16-mile Juddmonte International Stakes, but he will not be in Paris next Sunday.

Golan himself may be denied an opportunity to display his considerable talents at Longchamp. The Japan Cup has always been his ultimate goal this season, but he was expected to run in the Arc first. However, Coolmore owns a controlling interest in Golan, and it does not want Golan clashing with its Epsom and Irish Derby winner High Chaparral. Coolmore will send Golan to the Breeders' Cup Turf, but only if High Chaparral, who has not run since June 30, is declared unfit for the Arc. So the Arc will have either Golan or High Chaparral, but not both.

Moreover, Zindabad is using the Canadian International as his BC Turf prep while Hawk Wing runs in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes.

So just who will run in the Arc? French Derby winner Sulamani looks like a solid favorite on good ground. Prix Foy winner Aquarelliste, distant runner-up last year to Sakhee, is rounding into shape. Falbrav invades from Italy, Boreal from Germany, and Manhattan Cafe from Japan. Also running are September Stakes winner Asian Heights, Prix Vermeille second- and third-place finishers Ana Marie and Bright Sky, and Prix Foy runner-up Anabaa Blue. Godolphin's Grosser Preis von Baden winner Marienbard also will run.

Besides international race competition, the Arc is being depleted by owners like the Magniers, who retire their best horses after the horses' 3-year-old seasons. Prize money is also an issue. The purse of $1,568,000 will be an Arc record, but it pales in comparison with the Japan Cup's $3.9 million, the Hong Kong Cup's $2.3 million, and the BC Turf's $2 million.

Judging by six of its last seven winners - Lammtarra, Helissio, Peintre Celebre, Montjeu, Sinndar, and Sakhee - the Arc would appear to be as healthy as ever. Is this year's race an aberration, or are the chinks in the great race's armor beginning to show?