07/11/2002 11:00PM

Down the road, Sarafan's a sleeper

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PHOENIX - For a few moments in March, Neil Drysdale must have thought he had finally caught a break. But good fortune in racing can be as fragile as a bubble. Sarafan entered the U.S. racing scene in March 2001 with more of a whimper than a bang. He brought a strong resume from overseas, including a close fifth to top-class Giant's Causeway in the Grade 1 St. James's Palace. But in the U.S., he toiled in anonymity.

Sarafan's best race last year was a super runner-up effort to Forbidden Apple in Belmont's Kelso. But he was beaten up at the start of the Breeders' Cup Mile and was never able to muster a charge, finishing eighth of 12.

In March, it looked as though he finally turned a corner. He ran a terrific second in the Grade 2 Kilroe Mile, only losing to Decarchy's furious late rally. Behind him that day were such horses at Breeders' Cup Mile winner Val Royal, Designed for Luck, and Irish Prize.

Things got better. Later that month at Fair Grounds, Sarafan did something no one else in the U.S. has done - beat America's top turf horse, Beat Hollow. His big-rally win in the Grade 2 Explosive Bid had Drysdale believing Sarafan was on his way. It looked as though he could be big in any turf race from a mile to 1 1/4 miles.

Then that bubble burst. In a small field in the Grade 2 San Francisco Mile in April, Sarafan had no chance as Suances waltzed through slow splits. In Hollywood's Grade 1 Charlie Whittingham at 1 1/4 miles in June, Sarafan was knocked sideways at a most crucial point - when making his run. He was fourth to Denon, the fast Night Patrol, and the talented Bobby Frankel import Skipping.

Drysdale wheeled Sarafan back July 6 in the Grade 1 United Nations at Monmouth. There were some familiar faces: Denon and Suances, both at the top of their game. With Anticipation, who crossed the wire first in the U.N. last year, was also there.

But the U.N. is at 1 3/8 miles, a full furlong farther than the Whittingham. Sarafan lagged back early while Suances set the pace and With Anticipation and Denon stalked. With a huge move on the far turn, Sarafan roared up along side, and actually seemed to put his head in front. It looked as though he was going to win.

But Sarafan seemed to say "enough's enough" when he hit furlong number 11, and ran third to With Anticipation and Denon.

But Drysdale must still be happy about a few things. First, he has Sarafan going really well. And second, he found out Sarafan can handle 1 1/4 miles at the top level.

He may well come back in the Grade 1 Eddie Read at Del Mar at the end of July at 1 1/8 miles. Beat Hollow should be there, as well as the other top names on the West Coast. But Drysdale could also train him right up to the big 10-furlong event of the summer, the Arlington Million. Sarafan has shown he can fire fresh and handle the distance. He will need to be at his peak to handle Beat Hollow and the major Europeans likely to be there, but that's what Drysdale does so well: get horses to that peak.

Should Sarafan run well at Arlington, then Drysdale has two months to turn him back to a mile for the Breeders' Cup. Sarafan is not a 1 1/2-mile horse.

The future book betting for the Breeders' Cup Mile is Aug. 9-11. If you're like me and a Sarafan fan, you can get on board before his potential Arlington Million run Aug. 17.

By then, Sarafan's luck can change for the better.