06/17/2001 11:00PM

Did 'Dubai Effect' doom Captain Steve?

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NEW YORK - It's not like Captain Steve stunk the joint out Saturday at Churchill Downs. Yes, he was beaten by Guided Tour in the Stephen Foster Handicap. But, in his first start in nearly three months, Captain Steve was in the unenviable position of having to keep Duckhorn somewhat honest on the early lead and still have enough left to contain the stretch runners. In the end, Captain Steve was beaten only a half-length.

On the other hand, Captain Steve was 3-5 in the Foster, meaning he was expected to do better than finish second. In truth, if he ran back to either one of his first two races this year - a strong win in the Donn and a decisive victory in the Dubai World Cup - Captain Steve would have had a horse like Guided Tour for lunch. Since he didn't, however, it is legitimate to wonder if Captain Steve's long journey halfway around the world to Dubai last March, his gut-wrenching effort against an international World Cup field, and his long trip home didn't take something out of him. It is reasonable to wonder if he didn't fall victim to a "Dubai Effect."

It is also fair to ask, "When it comes to American horses, is there such a thing as a "Dubai Effect?"

Even though the history of the Dubai World Cup now spans only six short years, the answer is, there may well be.

In the first five years of the Dubai World Cup, a total of 15 United States-based horses were sent to compete in it (Silver Charm and Behrens each made two trips to Dubai). Certainly, those 15 horses represented a wide range of ability, from some truly top- class animals to some merely useful performers. However, a study of what all of these horses did, or more often didn't do, later in the same season after the World Cup revealed some surprising results.

Of those 15 horses, only three performed at a truly high level immediately upon resuming action in the United States. First was Cigar, who, after winning the inaugural Dubai World Cup in 1996, returned to this country and won the Massachusetts Handicap and Citation Challenge. It should be noted, however, that after the Citation Challenge, Cigar lost three of his last four starts. Second was Formal Gold, who, after finishing fifth in the 1997 World Cup, came back to miss by a head to Skip Away in the Mass Cap, then won the Brooklyn, the Iselin, and Woodward. The third was Victory Gallop, who, after finishing third in the 1999 World Cup, came back to win the Foster and Whitney handicaps. The Whitney turned out to be the last race of his career.

Silver Charm did have success after the first of his two appearances in the World Cup, but it was not immediate. After he won the 1998 World Cup, Silver Charm finished second in the Foster and then was badly beaten in the San Diego Handicap. But, later that year he did finish in a dead heat for first in the Kentucky Cup Classic and won the Goodwood and Clark handicaps. He also finished a close second in the Breeders' Cup Classic

Only three of the 15 U.S.-based horses who competed in the first five World Cups won their next starts. Two were Cigar and Victory Gallop. The other was Ecton Park, who finished fifth in the 2000 World Cup. After returning from Dubai, Ecton Park beat a soft field in the Schaefer Handicap at Pimlico, and then proceeded to go 0 for 4 the rest of the season.

The list of U.S. horses who did not have success after competing in the World Cup is a much larger one. Three times larger, to be precise. While only three U.S.-based horses who competed in the World Cup immediately continued to perform at a high level in this country, and only three even won their next starts here, nine either failed to win again in the same year they competed in the World Cup, or failed to even race again that year, or race again, period.

Soul of the Matter, second to Cigar in the 1996 World Cup, never ran again. Siphon and Sandpit, who finished second and third, respectively, in the 1997 World Cup, went 0 for 3 and 0 for 5, respectively, that year after the World Cup. Malek, who was fourth to Silver Charm in the 1998 World Cup, didn't race again that year, while Behrens, who finished fifth in the first of his two World Cup appearances, came back in the Brooklyn, was crushed, and didn't run again in 1998.

After finishing sixth in the 1999 World Cup, Silver Charm was dismal in the Foster and was retired the next day. Behrens, who finished second in last year's World Cup, completed 2000 by going 0 for 4. Puerto Madero, who finished fourth in last year's World Cup, followed with two losses, while neither Public Purse, who finished third, nor Saint's Honor, who was 10th, raced again.

In fairness, it should be pointed out that Caller One won impressively in his United States return after winning the rich sprint race on the Dubai World Cup undercard. But, he's a sprinter, and sprinters are a different breed. Besides, the question here is about Captain Steve, and perhaps, to a lesser extent, Aptitude, who recently returned from a sixth to Captain Steve in the World Cup with a third in the Californian. Will they emulate Cigar, Formal Gold, Victory Gallop, or even the 1998 version of Silver Charm? Or, will they fall in amongst the unsuccessful numbers?

Time will tell, but the odds for success aren't great.