04/29/2002 12:00AM

Distance no question for this colt


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Can he stay the trip?

It's the classic question, asked each year at the Kentucky Derby of all the participants. The answer, more often than not, is: No. Many entrants are honest, courageous individuals, and they would have to be to earn the status that got them to the Derby. But the 1 1/4 miles without any water is one obstacle they can't overcome.

Essence of Dubai is an exception. He raced the distance in winning the United Arab Emirates Derby in Dubai six weeks ago for Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin Racing Stable.

"We've been trying to win the Kentucky Derby for several years," said assistant trainer Tom Albertrani. "We came here with Worldly Manner and he couldn't get the distance. We shipped China Visit and Curule, and they couldn't get the trip. We came here last year with Express Tour, and he wouldn't stay. But Essence of Dubai has already proven he can stay.

"You've got to look at the colt's record. It shows four victories from six starts. The only time he disappointed was in the Breeders' Cup. He might have been a little too close to the early pace. It is difficult to gauge the horses he beat in the UAE Derby, but his performance was impressive. He deserves consideration as among the leading prospects to win this Derby, and he couldn't be training better."

Sheikh Mohammed has spared no expense in his concerted effort to win the Kentucky Derby, one of the world's great racing prizes that as yet has escaped his grasp. He paid $2.3 million for Essence of Dubai, who is by Pulpit out of Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Epitome, and the attractive 16-hand colt has earnings of over $1.54 million. A victory on Saturday would make him a rare bargain.

Some observers, noting the six-week interval from his last start, speculate he might have benefitted from a race over an American track before the Derby.

"The stable is trying to win it with all the effort done in Dubai," Albertrani said. "That would be a sensational accomplishment."

Albertrani, who is responsible for all of the colt's training at Churchill Downs, has been with the Godolphin Stable for seven years. Prior to that he was assistant trainer at Bill Mott's powerful public stable. He made his racing debut as a rider in 1980, but quickly outgrew the job.

He sees Came Home and Harlan's Holiday as the logical favorites and the ones to beat in the Kentucky Derby, and cites their steadiness as the basis for his selection. But he also gives Essence of Dubai an excellent chance, and feels the abundance of speed in the Derby should work to the colt's advantage.