03/28/2008 12:00AM

Crunch time for Europe's classic season


NEW YORK - The rush to the European classic season will commence in earnest next Sunday at Leopardstown in Ireland, leaving no more than four weeks for trainers to prepare for the first classic of the season, Newmarket's 2000 Guineas, which falls this year, as usual, on Kentucky Derby Day, May 3.

While the American schedule allows four months for horses to prepare for the Run for the Roses, the European flat-racing season in early spring is crammed with preps for a plethora of Guineas - six in all, three each for colts and fillies in England at Newmarket, France at Chantilly, and Ireland at the Curragh. Yet nearly half of the horses running in the English Guineas will be making their seasonal debuts, frequently leaving players at a loss as to the true form they bring to Newmarket.

Rest assured, however, that Jim Bolger will have New Approach primed and ready for the 2000 Guineas, in which Europe's champion juvenile will run without benefit of a prep off a 6 1/2-month winter vacation. An undefeated son of Galileo, New Approach is the antepost favorite for both the Guineas and the 1 1/2-mile Epsom Derby. As all five of his 2-year-old victories came at seven furlongs, the Guineas mile should not prove too short for a horse expected to blossom as the distances grow longer.

Godolphin's lack of a first-class 3-year-old in recent years should be remedied this season by its Racing Post Trophy winner Ibn Khaldun, who was named its leading Guineas hope at an Al Quoz press conference on Wednesday. Godolphin's Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere winner Rio de la Plata could also go straight from Dubai to the Guineas, along with Fast Company, who was purchased by Godolphin after his half-length second to New Approach in the Dewhurst Stakes.

The possibility of an Epsom Derby clash between New Approach and Thewayyouare, the Kingmambo colt who landed the Criterium International in November, will not be known until mid-May. Andre Fabre will start Thewayyouare in the French 2000 Guineas on May 11 and then decide between the French Derby on June 1 or the Epsom Derby six days later. Fabre is also preparing the undefeated Elusive Quality colt Elusif for the French Guineas.

Bolger has high hopes for the Galileo filly Lush Lashes, winner of the restricted $2.2 million Goffs Fillies Million at the Curragh in her September debut. She was put away after that but looms large in the run-up to the classic season.

In Natagora, Zarkava, and Listen, Lush Lashes will have plenty of 3-year-old competition. Trained by Pascal Bary, Cheveley Park Stakes winner Natagora will prep for the 1000 Guineas in the seven-furlong Prix Imprudence at Maisons-Laffitte on April 14. Zarkava, the Alain de Royer-Dupre-trained winner of the Prix Marcel Boussac, is being aimed at the French 1000 Guineas on May 11 but could prep in the Prix de la Grotte four weeks earlier. The Sadler's Wells filly Listen, trained by Aidan O'Brien to win Ascot's Fillies Mile, has the look of an English Oaks type.

One prominent 2007 juvenile who will not be going the Guineas route is Kingsgate Native. Winner of the Nunthorpe Stakes in August and a sharp second in the Prix de l'Abbaye on October, both against older horses, Kingsgate Native has the makings of a world-class sprinter under the tutelage of James Best. Abbaye winner Benbaun, July Cup winner Sakhee's Secret, and Dandy Man, who was recently picked up by Godolphin, will provide Kingsgate Native with plenty of sprint competition.

Among the best older horses returning to the races are multiple Group 1 winners Ramonti, Notnowcato, Peeping Fawn, Doctor Dino, Literato, Darjina, and Finsceal Beo, French Oaks winner West Wind, and George Strawbridge's Prix Vermeille winner Mrs. Lindsay. Soldier of Fortune and Sagara will add sparkle to the middle-distance scene.

The death of Alec Wildenstein at the age of 67 last month has left his younger brother Guy in charge of the family's racing interests in France. And even though Guy is based in New York at the family art gallery, there will be no changes at Ecurie Wildenstein in Chantilly. Elie Lellouche remains the trainer of the Wildenstein stable, which in recent years has sent out major stakes winners Aquarelliste, Bright Sky, Vallee Enchantee, and Westerner.

Japanese colt has Belmont pedigree

The retirement of Rags to Riches this week is softened somewhat by the news that her Mineshaft half-brother Casino Drive is headed this way from Japan for a shot at the Belmont Stakes.

Unraced at 2 because of a minor setback, the Kazuo Fujisawa trainee won his only race on Feb. 23, taking a 1 1/8-mile Kyoto dirt maiden by 11 1/2 lengths. Currently in quarantine in Japan, Casino Drive is expected to arrive in New York in early May for the Peter Pan Stakes on May 10.

Another of his half-brothers, Jazil, won the Belmont Stakes two years ago. The possibility of a mare, in this case Better Than Honour, producing three Belmont winners in a row should be enough to attract students of pedigree from every part of the globe to Belmont Park on June 7, also known as Epsom Derby Day in Europe.