05/30/2001 12:00AM

Godolphin is getting it

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Godolphin, the international racing stable headed by Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum of Dubai, is slowly but steadily working its way along the learning curve of the American version of the sport. The prospect of adding a Kentucky Derby winner to its heady accomplishments in Europe and Dubai first lured Godolphin across the Atlantic, and the Derby clearly remains its overriding objective.

But Godolphin's initial direct assaults on the Derby failed badly. So in 2000, it sent a string of regally bred 2-year-olds to California, hoping to acclimate them to the American style, separate the strong from the weak, and develop a serious Derby contender. The experiment had only modest success.

Under trainer Eoin Harty, the Goldolphin youngsters' winning percentage was in the 11-to-12 percent range. Street Cry did emerge as a genuine 2-year-old stakes horse, although he suffered frustrating narrow losses to Flame Thrower in the Del Mar Futurity and Norfolk. Now Godolphin has opened a new front in New York, where it has stabled stars such as E Dubai, Street Cry, Express Tour, and Bakhoor.

In 2001, Godolphin has made more progress in understanding the Derby's special demands. When Street Cry was sidelined by an injury after a big race in Dubai, Godolphin placed its Derby hopes on Express Tour. But the stable continued its stubborn refusal to recognize the need for a prep race or two in the U.S., and entered Express Tour in the Derby with only one race under his belt - in Dubai - and that one a draining, all-out, big-figure win over stablemate Street Cry five weeks before the first Saturday in May. In the Derby, Express Tour couldn't have scripted a more perfect trip, and his disastrous fade in the final eighth provided another disappointment to the Godolphin connections.

Unfortunately, their first impulse was to blame the horse, not the preparation. Trainer Saeed bin Suroor drew from the Derby this lesson: "Next time," he said, "we'll bring a quality horse who's also a stayer."

But then came a flash from him of seemingly casual insight that might finally produce a change in Godolphin's approach to Derby 2002.

"This is a difficult race to win!" bin Suroor said.

If this simple bit of wisdom sinks in, Godolphin will certainly be a more dangerous threat in Kentucky the next few years.

But for the rest of 2001, Godolphin will certainly make the racing scene interesting in New York.

First, they have brought the speedy, talented E Dubai. On May 11 he smashed an allowance field by 12 1/2 lengths, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 107. Then, last Saturday, he dueled in the slop with Hero's Tribute in the Peter Pan, setting some blazing fractions before finally settling for second. Hero's Tribute ran off to a Beyer Speed Figure of 112, adding his name to the extraordinary number of 3-year-olds - most of them speed types - who have run 110 Beyers or better. E Dubai ran gamely, earning a Beyer of 106.

Godolphin has started five other runners at Belmont. A few have disappointed, especially Curule, who ran last of five in an allowance race on May 16, losing by 12 1/2 lengths at 1-5. Dubai World had a good trip on May 20 but ran a mere fourth with a Beyer of 93. Zahwah, a promising 2-year-old filly in 2000, struggled on opening day at Belmont in the Nassau County, behind Cat Chat and Xtra Heat, and wound up a distant fourth with a Beyer of 79.

But Godolphin brings more than high-class horses. It brings style and flair. Its trainers have a penchant for plain speaking that's refreshing and entertaining in the normally hyper-cautious world of trainer-speak. So when E Dubai made his debut at Belmont on May 11, Daily Racing Form in its Eastern edition introduced a welcome new feature: the front-page guarantee. The headline read: "Psst! E Dubai can't lose! Trainer says he'll win by 5."

Harty went out on a limb, saying, "He's a super-talented horse. If he doesn't win by five, I'd be definitely disappointed. He's got a ton of talent."

Harty, the colt's trainer as a 2-year-old, was as good as his word, and his guarantee helped solidify a very bettable pick four that paid more than $700.

American trainers should take notice and follow Godolphin's generous lead. A few more guaranteed winners now and again could certainly come in handy.