01/27/2006 1:00AM

Hurricane Run worthy of crown

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NEW YORK - The coronation of Hurricane Run as the top-rated horse on the 2005 World Thoroughbred Racehorse Rankings came as no surprise to anyone familiar with his exploits in Europe this past year. His rating of 130 left him five pounds clear of runners-up Motivator and Shamardal on the 3-year-old list; six pounds ahead of the top-rated American 3-year-old, Afleet Alex; two pounds in front of the world's top-ranked American, Ghostzapper; and five in front of Breeders' Cup Classic champ Saint Liam.

Had the rankings been based on overall annual performance rather than a horse's single best effort, Hurricane Run would have deserved a rating of at least 132. His two-length victory in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe was the best performance by a racehorse anywhere in the world this year, but his half-length score in the Irish Derby over Scorpion - who was coming off a track-record performance in the Grand Prix de Paris over the Arc course and distance, and who would subsequently land the St. Leger Stakes - was probably seven pounds better than Motivator's much overrated five-length win in the Epsom Derby.

Hurricane Run would have ended the season undefeated if not for his neck loss to Shamardal in the French Derby, a defeat that resulted from an unlikely conspiracy of two factors. Had the race been run at its usual distance of 1 1/2 miles instead of its new 1 5/16 miles, his margin of victory would have equaled that of Motivator's at Epsom, so fast was he closing at the end of affairs. Even at the shortened distance, he was surely the best horse in the race, having started his run too late under Christophe Soumillon, who afterward lost the ride on Hurricane Run because of his dereliction of duty.

Hurricane Run, a son of Montjeu, appears to be the best Arc winner since Peintre Celebre in 1997, and he will be trained this year by Andre Fabre for a chance at an elusive double in Europe's greatest race. That feat has not been achieved since Alleged turned the trick in 1977 and 1978, the very same years in which Seattle Slew and Affirmed established themselves as the last winners of the American Triple Crown.

The fortunes of racing in Europe and America have gone in opposite directions since 1978. Since then European champions have included Shergar, All Along, Dancing Brave, Miesque, Lammtarra, Peintre Celebre, Pilsudski, Montjeu, Daylami, Dubai Millennium, Giant's Causeway, and Rock of Gibraltar, as well as 2-year-old champs Storm Bird, Machiavellian, and Arazi. Most of the colts among them have continued on to great success in the breeding shed, as have many who have fallen short of championship status like Nureyev, Kingmambo, and Giant's Causeway.

By contrast, America has produced Spectacular Bid, Slew o' Gold, Alysheba, Unbridled, A.P. Indy, Cigar, and Skip Away, after which the quality drops markedly to the likes of Funny Cide and Smarty Jones. Unlike European champions, few of our champions have distinguished themselves at stud. All of America's 3-year-old champions and older-horse champions in the last 10 years have been sired by different stallions, and only two of them, Point Given and Mineshaft, have been sired by 3-year-old or older-horse champions - Thunder Gulch and A.P. Indy, respectively.

That is hardly the case in Europe, where since 1986 Sadler's Wells has produced three such champions in Doyen, Galileo, and Montjeu. Nashwan, a champion himself, has two in Bago and Swain, and Danehill two in Rock of Gibraltar and Westerner. Moreover, Montjeu has already produced Hurricane Run, not to mention Motivator and Scorpion, all in his first crop, an indication that the Sadler's Wells line is alive and well.

The point is that in Europe the best racehorses continue to produce great racehorses, while in America breeding seems to have descended into a game of mix-and-match.

The underlying intent of horse racing has always been the improvement of the breed. That theory is best exemplified when champions, classic winners, and Group 1 winners produce others of the same kind. In Europe that continues to be the case. The same is true in Japan, where over the last 15 years the Kentucky-bred Sunday Silence sired champions too numerous to list in this space.

On the other hand, breeding in America has become a guessing game. Sadly for racing in this country, European breeders and owners have been guessing right far more often than their American counterparts since the halcyon days of Seattle Slew and Affirmed.