04/19/2002 12:00AM

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NEW YORK - The abbreviated preparations with which Johannesburg and Castle Gandolfo will arrive at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby were not arrived at entirely by design.

The late-starting flat racing seasons in Ireland and England are hardly conducive to the development of horses for important early spring races, whether the Derby or the 2000 Guineas, the one-mile Newmarket classic that is run on the same day as the Derby.

Last year eight of the 19 runners were making their first starts of the year in the 2000 Guineas. The other 11 were all making just their second starts of the season. That was not unusual. There are few Guineas preps in Britain. The listed Easter Stakes, run on Easter Monday at Kempton Park, is an inconclusive affair that hardly ever produces a serious Guineas contender. The two major Group 3 Guineas preps, which were run at Newmarket and Newbury this week, are the only races for which British trainers consider their major Guineas hopefuls.

In fact, although the British flat racing season begins in the third week of March, there is a hardly a race run in England worth considering until Newmarket's Craven meeting during the third week of April.

On top of this there is a tendency on the part of some trainers with Guineas hopefuls to purposely avoid trial races. This was illustrated last week ago when James Eustace announced that his Guineas longshot Rapscallion would go directly to the Guineas without benefit of a prep. Eustace even admitted that this plan might look like he was afraid that a poor prep race could burst his Guineas prep hopes. That seems to be the attitude taken by a number of trainers and owners who want very much to have a Guineas runner, but are afraid of exposing him to public view even once.

Horses with just a single Guineas prep are surely not in the kind of top form that we expect from starters in the Kentucky Derby. The lack of identifiable 3-year-old form in the Guineas has led to the quality of that great race being called into question.

In fact, recent years have seen the development of a series of mile races for 3-year-olds that begins with the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket, continues with the French equivalent, the Poule d'Essai des Poulains, followed by the Irish 2000 Guineas, and then concludes with the St. James's Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot.

The St. James's Palace Stakes has taken on the look of a final while the three European Guineas have taken on the appearance of semifinals. This was not the way the founders of racing pictured things. The Guineas, whether in England, France, or Ireland, were designed as definitive one-mile races for 3-year-olds in their respective countries. But in this age of the global economy, which has its racing equivalent in the breaking down of borders through international racing, races that have a merely national appeal frequently take a back seat to international races.

The same can be applied to the filly equivalents of the 2000. The 1000 Guineas, the Poule d'Essai des Pouliches, and the Irish 1000 Guineas have become races that seem to lead up to a royal climax in the Coronation Stakes at Ascot.

This was never more evident than last year when Banks Hill, a narrow second in the French 1000, defeated English 1000 winner Ameerat, Irish 1000 runner-up and English 1000 fourth Crystal Music, and French 1000 winner Rose Gypsy in the Coronation Stakes. The national Guineas may be important races, but the Royal Ascot race proved to be the definitive one-mile contest for fillies in Europe, if not the world.

Perhaps the European Guineas, both the colt and filly editions, would receive a boost in status if their purses were increased. Trainers might be more willing to have their Guineas candidates race-fit in the American sense if the 2000 Guineas was worth more than 300,000 pounds ($432,000). That is a lot of money by British standards but pales when compared to the value of the American Triple Crown races.

British and Irish trainers have been winning the 2000 Guineas after winter-long layoffs or just a single prep since the advent of the race in 1809. They seem to think that they can follow the same path to the Kentucky Derby but, as we have seen in recent years with Express Tour, China Visit, Worldly Manner, Eltish, Dr. Devious, and Arazi, that simply isn't the case.

It took Godolphin three failed Derbies to understand this. Essence of Dubai will go in the Derby on May 4 with the benefit of two starts in 2002. Johnannesburg's trainer, Aidan O'Brien, on the other hand, appears to be following the tried and true 2000 Guineas course for a race that is run an ocean away under much different circumstances. He may be in for a learning experience on Derby Day, but do not bet against him figuring out what is required to win the Kentucky Derby rather quickly.