01/03/2003 12:00AM

Game is global, players are Maktoums, Magnier


NEW YORK - It doesn't take a Chinese fortune cookie manufacturer to determine the major trends that will be developing on the international racing scene in 2003.

The continued dominance in Europe of the Maktoum family and the Tabor/Magnier consortium will proceed apace. The number of nominations they have been made to this year's Epsom Derby serves as a perfect barometer of their strengths. The Maktoums, Godolphin included, have entered 187, while Tabor and Magnier have 53 on the list. They account for 240 of the 568 nominations, a whopping 42.3 percent of the total.

Those figures alone might prompt a betting man to get down on the chances of a horse owned by Tabor, Magnier, or a Maktoum to win England's most famous flat race.

And the odds would favor the Tabor- and Magnier-owned horses in Aidan O'Brien's yard because a number of Europe's best juvenile races in 2002 were won by Ballydoyle inmates. Hold That Tiger took the Grand Criterium, Alberto Giacometti won the Criterium de Saint-Cloud, and Brian Boru the Racing Post Trophy. While Hold That Tiger may be limited to 10 furlongs, Alberto Giacometti and Brian Boru are by Sadler's Wells and should have the stamina to get 1 1/2 miles.

The Maktoums had a lackluster 2002 juvenile season on both sides of the Atlantic, and while counting them out of the European classic picture would be foolhardy, Sheikh Mohammed has already expressed his intention of spreading his Thoroughbred wealth more liberally around the world.

Godolphin alone racked up 88 international victories in 2002, 42 of which came at the group or graded race level. But just 17 of those 88 came in Britain, where they keep their April-to-October headquarters at Newmaket.

"My personal challenge for the next 25 years and beyond is to take Godolphin to new peaks of achievement," Sheikh Mohammed said in his Gimcrack speech last month. "Our ambition is global. The whole point of Godolphin is to challenge for the best races all over the world."

That philosophy, coupled with the success of Japanese and Hong Kong horses on Hong Kong International Day the last two years, signals the gradual but continued Eastern shift that racing has been taking during the last decade.

Ten years ago racing in Dubai was small change. Now the the tiny emirate has six million-dollar races. Japan Cup weekend and Hong Kong International Day are multimillion dollar days that eclipse all but the Breeders' Cup and Arc weekend in prestige. The purses in Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore are superior to anything in America and dwarf those in Europe. And, thanks to the traffic in dual hemisphere stallions, there is much improvement in Australia, which may be Western in philosophy, but is Eastern in geography.

In France we should see an improvement in the fortunes of the Wertheimer brothers. Their international breeding and racing operation, which supplies horses to Criquette Head-Maarek and her son-in-law, Carlos Laffon-Parias, received a boost this autumn with the signing of Olivier Peslier as contract rider. For 10 years Head-Maarek had been locked into the services of journeyman Olivier Doleuze, who has followed in the footsteps of fellow Frenchmen Eric Legrix, Gerald Mosse, and Eric Saint-Martin and taken his tack to Hong Kong. Look for Peslier, arguably the best rider in Europe if not the world (with all due respect to Frankie Dettori, Jerry Bailey, and Mick Kinane), to regain his French riding championship in 2003 while leading the Wertheimers to new heights.

The global aspect of racing is a phenomenon that has led to the gradual overshadowing of our domestic sport. American horses either do not travel well, or American trainers are simply uninterested in sending horses abroad unless their travel expenses are covered.

More to the point, most American owners seem more interested in the short-term gains racing has to offer, as if breeding and owning racehorses were akin to playing the stock market. The Maktoums, Tabor, and Magniers of this world, along with the Aga Khan, Khalid Abdullah, the Wertheimers, and the Wildensteins, are long-term players. Their philosophies make them the dominant players on the international stage year in and year out.

To that list of illustrious European and Arab names can be added those of any number of operations in South America, from which we import a large handful of horses each year to capture some of the best prizes in the United States.

Chilean import Lido Palace, a modestly bred son of the Forty Niner stallion Rich Man's Gold, rates as good as any of U.S. homegrown products the last two years. The recent victory of the modestly talented Chilean-bred Piensa Sonando in the Native Diver Handicap, a Grade 3 race worthy of Grade 2 status, is revealing as was the third-place finish of the British all-weather reject Nose the Trade.

Over the last three years, foreign imports or horses trained in foreign countries have won nearly 20 percent of U.S. graded races, an increasing number of those on dirt. That leads one to surmise that if we were to remove all foreign imports from the American game, racing in this country might be no better than it is in South America in general, and a good deal inferior to the sport in Europe.

And that is a trend which should concern all Americans, from the blue-blooded breeders of Kentucky down to the trainers of the cheapest claimers in Idaho.