03/23/2005 1:00AM

Godolphin still harbors Derby dream

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Shamardal gallops in Dubai on Wednesday in preparation for his first start on dirt, Saturday's UAE Derby.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Slightly embarrassed by their lack of success in the Kentucky Derby in recent years, the Maktoum family and their powerful Godolphin Racing stable are turning to the European champion 2-year-old Shamardal for a potential crack at America's top race on May 7.

Shamardal, unbeaten in three starts and the top 2-year-old male in Europe last year, will make his 3-year-old debut in the $2 million UAE Derby at Nad Al Sheba Racecourse on Saturday, on a program that includes the $6 million .

A victory could lead Shamardal to Churchill Downs as Godolphin's first Kentucky Derby starter since 2003. Shamardal is Godolphin's only serious Derby hope.

"The Kentucky Derby is a very live option," Godolphin's racing manager, Simon Crisford, said on Wednesday morning at Godolphin's Al Quoz training center, about five miles from the Persian Gulf.

"If he handles the surface really really well and he runs with distinction, he'd be a credible contender for the Kentucky Derby."

The UAE Derby over 1 1/8 miles will be Shamardal's first start on dirt.

Last year, Shamardal ran on turf in England. Trained by Mark Johnston, he initially raced for Dubai businessman Abdulla Buhaleeba and later for Sheikh Maktoum al-Maktoum's Gainsborough Stud.

Shamardal's brief 2004 campaign was highlighted by victories in the Grade 2 Vintage Stakes at Goodwood in July and the Group 1 Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket in October. In the Vintage Stakes, Shamardal beat Wilko, who later won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Lone Star Park.

Following the Dewhurst, Shamardal was shipped to Dubai, transferred to trainer Saeed bin Suroor and placed in the Godolphin stable, an all-star team for the Maktoum family, whose horses are based at Nad Al Sheba.

At that point, the UAE Derby became a goal for Shamardal.

But despite his lofty status in Europe last year, Shamardal has not scared off any opponents Saturday. The UAE Derby has drawn 12 entrants, including two Brazilian Group 1 winners: Durban Thunder, trained by Kenneth McPeek, and Marenostrum, trained by Bobby Frankel.

Crisford says that Shamardal is not as far along in his preparation as Godolphin would prefer.

"Going into Saturday, he'll improve a lot with the run," Crisford said. "We gave him a break when we got here. It's a bit of a rush. He's thrived on the workload. He has the right attitude and the right temperament."

Though only 3, Shamardal has led a bizarre, almost tragic, life.

By Giant's Causeway and out of the Machiavellian mare Helsinki, Shamardal was bred in Kentucky by Brilliant Stable and failed to reach his reserve as a weanling in the 2002 Keeneland November sale. Early in 2003, as a yearling, Shamardal was found to be a wobbler, a condition marked by a loss of coordination brought on by compression of the spinal column. His case was so severe that veterinarians recommended he be euthanized and an insurance company paid a claim on him.

But Richard Ketch, a mortality adjuster who works with insurance companies on equine claims, convinced the insurance company to turn Shamardal over to him. Under the supervision of Ketch; Herwig Schoen of Santa Fe, N.M., who specializes in alternative medical treatments; and massage therapist Carole Seaver Kowalski of Montague, Mich., the colt slowly showed improvement over several months.

After several examinations by veterinarians, Shamardal was entered in the Tattersalls Houghton yearling sales in Newmarket, England.

He sold for 50,000 guineas, or approximately $88,000, to Sheikh Maktoum's Gainsborough Stud.

Shamardal was originally leased to Buhaleeba, who has ties to the Maktoum family. He was transferred back to Sheikh Maktoum after Buhaleeba's family reportedly fell out of favor with the Maktoums because of business practices. There were published reports in England that the dispute centered on Buhaleeba's losses at a West London casino.

When Shamardal won the Dewhurst Stakes, he was listed as owned by Sheikh Maktoum. At the end of the year, he was switched to the first team, Godolphin.

Through the winter, Shamardal was the future-book favorite for the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket on April 30. That changed this week when Godolphin stated that Shamardal was being pointed for the Kentucky Derby.

Godolphin has run five horses in the Kentucky Derby, with a sixth-place finish by China Visit in 2000 its best result. A typical Godolphin approach has been to race Derby prospects in the United States during their 2-year-old season and Dubai over the winter, and then bring them back to the U.S. in the spring. Shamardal represents a different approach - an attempt to win the Derby with a major European stakes winner.

"He'd be of a much better quality that what we'd have before," Crisford said.

Crisford says that Godolphin has learned from its losses in the Kentucky Derby.

"You have to take the right horse. We haven't done that yet," he said. "Time has shown they weren't good enough, or were non-stayers. China Visit was a Group 2 sort of horse. Worldly Manner wasn't up to that. If you have the right horse, it's achievable."

That makes Saturday's UAE Derby all the more vital for Shamardal.

"The issue won't be the trip," Crisford said. "It's whether he can handle the surface. We'll see how he runs on the sand. That's why we can't answer any questions for him now."