10/13/2005 11:00PM

Europeans take on history

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NEW YORK - According to the British bookmakers and their customers, once you get past Saint Liam, Rock Hard Ten, and Borrego, the horses to beat in the Breeders' Cup Classic are Starcraft, Oratorio, and Bago. Each of those European-based runners would be making his first start in the United States or on dirt of any kind. As of Friday, the antepost odds from England were as low as 5-1 on Starcraft, 8-1 on Oratorio, and 12-1 on Bago.

Their combined prices would suggest a belief there is about a 25 percent chance that one of these foreign invaders will win the race. Does the state of the Classic division this year, or the history of the race, support that idea?

In 21 previous runnings of the Classic, horses who made their previous start outside of North America have a combined record in the race of 1 for 26. Of course, that angle still shows a handsome if misleading flat-bet profit, as the lone winner was Arcangues at a tidy 133-1 in 1993.

Five of the other 25 starters have hit the board in the Classic, six if your definition of "board" includes rounding out the superfecta. In 1990, Ibn Bey ran second at 38-1, finishing between Unbridled and Thirty Six Red. In 1992, the 3-year-old filly Jolypha was third to favorites A.P. Indy and Pleasant Tap, going off at 15-1 as part of a three-ply Juddmonte entry with Defensive Play and Marquetry.

The floodgates opened after Arcangues's victory, and in 1994 five Europeans tried to replicate his success. They went off at far more modest prices, all at 25-1 or less, but the best the quintet could do was a 7th at 14-1 from Ezzoud, who had been 105-1 the previous year.

Europe perhaps should have gotten its second winner in 1998, when Swain was third, beaten a length after a bizarrely wide stretch run. The following year, Chester House was up for fourth at 63-1 to round out a superfecta that paid $692,907 on the single $1 winning ticket sold.

Then came the two closest misses by the Europeans, as the continent's two powerhouse outfits lost photos to Tiznow in successive years. In 2000, Coolmore's Giant's Causeway finished second by a neck. In 2001, Godolphin's Sakhee came up a nose short in a race where Coolmore's Galileo finished sixth at 3-1, the shortest price ever for a European in the Classic, and its Black Minnaloushe was 10th at 51-1.

While the overall record of 26-1-3-2 is hardly overwhelming, it might be worth noting this year that in two of the three previous Classic runnings at Belmont, where cooler weather and wider turns are arguably more Euro-friendly, Ibn Bey and Sakhee made it into the exacta.

Obviously, the other issue in evaluating the Europeans' chances is the quality of the native contingent. When Arcangues won in 1993, one can argue at least in retrospect that it was a race made to order for a longwinded stranger. Bertrando was a solid 6-5 favorite but questionable at the distance. Best Pal, who threw in a clunker as the 9-5 second choice, was really the only accomplished alternative in what had been a thin year in the handicap ranks.

Is this year similar? The defections are legion. Among the older horses, Ghostzapper, Roses in May, Commentator, Eddington, and Lava Man are retired or sidelined. Flower Alley and Sun King are the last standing American 3-year-old prospects in the absence of Afleet Alex, Bellamy Road, Declan's Moon, Giacomo, and Scrappy T.

If Starcraft, Oratorio, and Bago all try this Classic, it would be only the fourth time that three or more Europeans have run in the same year. The other times, there were recent encouraging precedents. In 1986, when Triptych, Bold Arrangement, and Iades came and ran 6-7-10, Bold Arrangement had blazed a little trail by running second in that year's Kentucky Derby. The five who ran in 1994 were clearly lured by Arcangues's success the previous year, and Giant's Causeway's near-miss helped attract the trio that ran in 2001. In the absence of any such recent encouragement, the high interest among Europeans this year seems to be solely a function of doubts about the quality of the American group.

Is that fair? Neither Saint Liam, Rock Hard Ten, nor Borrego seems like a Hall of Famer, and some people still think of them in their mid-2004 incarnations, when Borrego and Rock Hard Ten were also-rans on the Triple Crown trail and Saint Liam couldn't handle Peace Rules at the Grade 2 level. All three of them, however, are significantly different and better racehorses now.

The Europeans may like Belmont, but we already know Borrego and Saint Liam do, and Rock Hard Ten looks like he should. Given the venue and the absentees, it's understandable that the Europeans are coming, but they're going to have to be pretty special to beat the home team.