03/12/2004 12:00AM

Festival not the place for fainthearted horses

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Ever wonder what became of stamina in the American Thoroughbred?

On Friday, Gulfstream and Santa Anita, venues for the two leading meetings currently being conducted in these United States, ran a total of 18 races, the average distance of which was just 6.2 furlongs. Even the trotters can get farther than that.

That the American Thoroughbred is fast becoming a one-dimensional animal who can barely make its way halfway around any racetrack without the aid of Lasix and/or Butazolidin is one of contemporary sport's dirtiest little secrets. We live in an age when most of the contenders for the Triple Crown and the Breeders' Cup Classic are bred to be souped-up milers. Gone are the days when we could produce a horse like Kelso, the gelding who won the Jockey Club Gold Cup five times between 1960 and 1964 when that race was run at a distance of two miles.

The perfect antidote to all of this breathless, and largely meaningless, sprinting will be held this week in Cheltenham, England. From Tuesday through Thursday, 175,000 jump racing fans will brave appalling weather conditions while shelling out between $35 and $90 per day to gain entry into the National Hunt Festival. Once squeezed in to their tiny space in the grandstand, they will have the immense pleasure of watching and betting on 21 hurdle and steeplechase races, not one of which will be run at a distance of less than two miles.

It is enough to make a speed handicapper bounce from Aqueduct to Philadelphia and back again.

Not one of the more than 350 horses who will be saddled at Cheltenham this week will be injected with Lasix or Bute before their respective races, 12 of which rate as divisional championships.

While most of the horses at Cheltenham are trained in England, most of the best Irish jumpers will invade in force. France will be represented by a large handful of its best as well. As those three countries are the world's leading jump racing nations, the National Hunt Festival rates as a world championship event on a level that even the Breeders' Cup cannot match.

This year's festival will be highlighted by the attempt on Thursday of Best Mate to win a third consecutive Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase. If successful, Best Mate, a Henrietta Knight-trained 9-year-old gelding, will join Cottage Rake and Arkle as three-time winners of the world's best steeplechase.

While three Gold Cups in a row still falls short of the achievement of Golden Miller, who won the great race five times in succession, from 1932 through 1936, Best Mate would still be joining hallowed company. Cottage Rake was trained by Vincent O'Brien to his three Gold Cup triumphs from 1948 and 1950, but his victories, like those of Golden Miller, came before the National Hunt Festival had fully established itself as the be-all and end-all of jump racing.

Not so Arkle. Widely considered to be the greatest jumper who ever lived, he was a devastatingly efficient chaser who routinely pummeled his opposition. Trained in Ireland by Tom Dreaper to 27 victories in 32 career starts, Arkle won his three Gold Cups between 1964 and 1966. In the first two he beat 1963 winner Mill House, the British jumping world's version of Alydar, by five lengths and 20 lengths. Arkle capped his famous triple with a Secretariat-like 30-length victory at 1-10.

This is all the more noteworthy when one remembers that the Cheltenham Gold Cup is run at a distance of 3 5/16 miles, during which horses must execute 22 unforgiving fences, twice having to make the daunting climb at the base of Cleeve Hill, the picturesque landmark that serves as Cheltenham's "backstretch."

This year, for the first time, Americans will be able to watch and wager on the Gold Cup and four other races on Cheltenham's Thursday card. British racing broadcaster Attheraces has contracted with a number of outlets in the United States, among them the New York Racing Association, The Meadowlands, Philadelphia Park, the Fair Grounds, and New York City OTB, as well as account wagering services throughout the country. Past performance information, however, will be lacking for all but the Gold Cup, as only Group 1 flat races and Grade 1 jump races, like the Gold Cup, are drawn on a 48-hour basis in Britain.

One thing you will not be seeing at Cheltenham are demonstrations by Manchester United fans supporting the team's manager, Alex Ferguson, in his battle with John Magnier over breeding rights to Rock of Gibraltar.

Ferguson, who revealed on Friday that he had had been fitted with a pacemaker earlier in the week, had asked fans not to demonstrate at Cheltenham even before the Rock of Gibraltar case was settled out of court this week.

J.P. McManus, who will have a number of runners at the festival, has, along with Coolmore boss Magnier, bought up 29 percent of Manchester United in recent months, and fans were concerned that the Irish-based duo were putting undue pressure on Ferguson.

But if we are lucky, we may get a glimpse of Desert Orchid. Now 24, the legendary winner of the 1989 Gold Cup will be paraded in front of the stands before racing on Thursday. Though not quite in Arkle's class, "Dessie" captured the heart of a nation with his victory at Cheltenham on a hilly, left-handed course and on heavy ground to which he was totally unsuited. Yet he overcame all obstacles to prevail on the day. That is the nature of jump racing. Victory requires more than a quick dash around one turn. It demands the stamina, heart, and guts of which the American Thoroughbred was once, in Kelso's time, the prime example.