01/23/2009 1:00AM

This could be Godolphin's Derby year

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NEW YORK - Midshipman, Vineyard Haven, and Donativum, perhaps the three biggest 2-year-old winners in America last year, are all prime Kentucky Derby hopefuls but none of them is currently in the United States. In fact, they are all ensconced at Al Quoz, Godolphin's training base near Nad Al Sheba Racecourse in Dubai.

Sheikh Mohammed seemed to have forgotten about his dream of winning the Run for the Roses in recent years. His last Godolphin runner in the Derby was Essence of Dubai, who finished ninth in 2002, but nothing in trainer Saeed bin Suroor's barn has threatened to crack the Derby lineup since then. This year, with three hot prospects and a newly enhanced foreign path to Churchill Downs, the story could be different.

Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Midshipman and Champagne Stakes winner Vineyard Haven are both under consideration for the one-mile UAE 2000 Guineas on Feb. 12 and the 1 1/8-mile UAE Derby on Dubai World Cup Night, March 28.

Trained last year by Bob Baffert for Stonerside Stable, Midshipman was transferred to Darley Stable after Sheikh Mohammed's purchase of Stonerside. Following the Breeders' Cup, Midshipman was transferred to Godolphin, as was Vineyard Haven, the Bobby Frankel-trained winner of the Hopeful who was bought by Sheikh Mohammed after his Champagne victory.

Nad Al Sheba's dirt track may impart an edge to Vineyard Haven because his three victories were on dirt at Calder, Saratoga, and Belmont. In contrast, Midshipman has never run on that surface, his three tallies coming on synthetic tracks at Del Mar and Santa Anita.

There is a feeling, however, that Midshipman will not only take to dirt, but that he is better equipped to stay the Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles. He is by Wood Memorial and Florida Derby winner Unbridled's Song out of 1o1/8-mile La Canada winner Fleet Lady. While the average winning distance of Unbridled's Song progeny is just 8.1 furlongs, Midshipman looks certain to stay at least nine furlongs. Moreover, he has shown staying power at the end of all four of his races to date.

Vineyard Haven is by Lido Palace, a three-time Grade 1 winner on dirt going 1 1/8 miles who was second in the 1 1/4-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup and won a Chilean Group 1 on dirt at 1 3/8 miles. Vineyard Haven, however, is out of a sprinting female family that may let him down beyond nine furlongs.

Donativum, the only 2-year-old in history to win two million-dollar races (the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf and the Tattersalls Million), has been nominated to the first running of the Tattersalls 3-Year-Old Trophy, a 1 1/4-mile restricted turf race worth $560,000 at Newmarket on April 15. He is also a possibility for the brand new Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes, a 1 1/8-mile allowance worth $350,000 (but just $112,000 to the winner) on the Kempton Park Polytrack on March 18. That is the race in which the winner receives an automatic berth in the Kentucky Derby and for which Donativum appears to be a perfect fit if Godolphin is interested in sending him back to England nearly a month before it usually ships its European contingent from Dubai.

Because Donativum is a gelding, he is ineligible for all of the European classics. That is an added incentive for Godolphin to send him to Churchill Downs should he complete his preliminaries in the hoped-for manner, but Donativum is by the sprinting sire Cadeaux Genereux out of a mare by the miler Warning and is a question mark beyond a mile and at any distance on dirt. His half- brother Worldly, by the 1 1/4-mile type sire Selkirk, won the 1 1/8-mile Cinema Handicap on turf but was only seventh in his lone try at 1 1/4 miles in the Hollywood Gold Cup.

Desert Party and Regal Ransom brightened Godolphin's hopes on Thursday when they finished one-two in a seven-furlong allowance at Nad Al Sheba. A stoutly bred Street Cry-Tabasco Cat cross, Desert Party had won the Sanford Stakes at Saratoga in July before finishing sixth behind Vineyard Haven in the Hopeful, while Regal Ransom won his maiden at Saratoga before finishing eighth in the Norfolk Stakes in which Midshipman was second. Both could challenge Vineyard Haven and Midshipman in the UAE 2000 Guineas in what is shaping up as an intramural Godolphin affair.

Godolphin also has the ex-Wayne Catalano trainee Jose Adan at Al Quoz. First across the line in the Arlington-Washington Futurity from which he was disqualified and placed second for his only loss in three starts, he is also a gelding.

We will soon know more about European plans for the Derby as Triple Crown nominations closed on Saturday. Aidan O'Brien and Dermot Weld are sure to have a half-dozen or so on the list. But if Churchill Downs is really serious about attracting foreign horses to the Derby, it should forgo marketing ploys like Kempton's Kentucky Derby Challenge and install a synthetic surface. If that were the case, half the Derby field might hail from foreign climes.