04/25/2002 12:00AM

Difficult race to win


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The battles are fought on many fronts, from the yearling sales at Keeneland, to the historic racecourses throughout Europe. And now it is the May 4 Kentucky Derby, America's greatest race, that looms the latest site in the fevered competition between Sheikh Mohammed's Dubai-based Godolphin Racing Inc. and the Irish-based Coolmore partnership of John Magnier and Michael Tabor.

Those two entities have three of the expected 20 runners in this year's Kentucky Derby, and not one of those horses will have raced in the United States this year. Godolphin's Essence of Dubai, who began his career in California, spent the winter in Dubai, where he won the United Arab Emirates Derby. Magnier and Tabor are represented by Castle Gandolfo, who has never raced in the United States, and Johannesburg, whose only start in this country last year resulted in a victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and an Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old colt.

The Derby always has enraptured Americans, who see it as the greatest prize in the sport. Yet the Derby has become a target for the premier stables in Europe. There has been a smattering of interest from Europeans over the years, including a runner-up finish from Great Britain's Bold Arrangement in 1986, but nothing like in recent years.

This will be the fourth consecutive year that Godolphin has had a horse in the Derby, all under the care of trainer Saeed bin Suroor. Tabor won the Derby in 1995 with Thunder Gulch, but that colt was based throughout his career in the United States. Johannesburg and Castle Gandolfo, who are trained by Aidan O'Brien, represent the first Irish-based runners Coolmore is sending directly to the Derby, and Tabor believes they will not be the last.

"I hope this is the first of many years that we will have runners," Tabor said Thursday in a conference call from Monte Carlo, where he lives. Winning with Thunder Gulch, Tabor said, "whetted my appetite."

Why the increased attention in the Derby from foreign interests?

"It's quite a unique race, obviously, and worth winning," Tabor said.

The Derby is to horsemen the world over what Mount Everest is to climbers - the ultimate goal, the supreme challenge.

"It's a very difficult race to win. It is the best race in the world," Suroor said Thursday from Dubai, also in a conference call. "The Japan Cup, the Melbourne Cup, this is one of our targets."

In Essence of Dubai, who worked seven furlongs in 1:28.40 Thursday morning at Churchill Downs, Godolphin has perhaps its best chance of winning the Derby.

"I guess every year we say the same thing," Godolphin assistant trainer Tom Albertrani said self-deprecatingly Thursday morning at Churchill Downs.

Yes, but each year it's true. Godolphin has tweaked its preparation since first sending Worldly Manner here straight from Dubai with nary a prep race in 1999. Godolphin has sent horses who could handle the Derby's 1 1/4-mile distance but were ill-prepared, and horses who were better prepared, like Express Tour last year, but could not handle 1 1/4 miles. Essence of Dubai has had two prep races this year in Dubai, including the United Arab Emirates Derby, which was lengthened this year to 1 1/4 miles from 1 1/8 miles. And Essence of Dubai came to Kentucky early enough to get in more than two weeks of training at Churchill Downs.

"We've made changes to try and win the Derby, starting with having the 2-year-olds in California," Albertrani said. "Now they have two races under their belt before they travel from Dubai for the Derby. And knowing a mile and a quarter suits our horse is a positive."

"What we sent before, they could not stay," Suroor said, meaning handle the distance, "or they were not good enough. We learned. You have to bring a horse with class who can stay the distance."

Coolmore is seemingly behind Godolphin on the learning curve. Both Johannesburg and Castle Gandolfo have had just one prep race this year. They will not arrive in the United States until Tuesday. Because there is no quarantine facility at Churchill Downs - "Quite frankly, that's a little disappointing," Tabor said - they will be quarantined for 48 hours near Keeneland. O'Brien is likely to keep his horses at Keeneland until the morning of the Derby, meaning they will not step foot on Churchill Downs's surface until being brought over to be saddled for the race.

"It's a learning curve," Tabor said. "I'm sure we will learn. But you've got to start somewhere.

"The odds are stacked against you. But there's only one Kentucky Derby."

In other Derby developments Thursday:

- Request for Parole, who finished third in the Spiral Stakes in his last start, worked six furlongs in 1:13.40 with jockey Robby Albarado. The time was the best of eight works at the distance.

- Tabor said the chances were "slim and none" of his colt Mayakovsky being wheeled back in the Kentucky Derby following Saturday's one-mile Derby Trial.

- If Mayakovsky is removed from Derby consideration, that would ensure a starting berth in the race for Windward Passage, who finished in a dead heat for third in the Arkansas Derby in his last start. "We want to get in," said Steve Asmussen, who trains Windward Passage.

- If no other defections occur between now and when entries are taken on Wednesday morning, horses such as U S S Tinosa and Sunday Break would not make the Derby field of 20, because of insufficient earnings in graded stakes races.