03/22/2002 12:00AM

Lingfield race a useful trial or public workout?

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British and Irish racing emerged from the damp and chilly pleasures of the jumps season this week with the opening of flat-race meetings at Doncaster and the Curragh.

In England, attention has been diverted from Doncaster's Lincoln Handicap meeting not only by the Dubai World Cup but also by the bold attempt of Lingfield Park to lure Johannesburg into a Kentucky Derby prep on its all-weather track.

Arena Leisure, which owns Lingfield and four other British racecourses, has stirred up the British racing world by employing some novel marketing techniques in recent years. Arena has turned Windsor Racecourse into the Monday night place to be with an aggressive campaign aimed at young investor types who work in the City, London's version of Wall Street. Arena also owns the only other tracks in Britain with all-weather, or dirt, surfaces, Southwell and Wolverhampton.

It was to Southwell, just a few miles northeast of Nottingham, that Aidan O'Brien sent Galileo and Johannesburg for dirt works before their arrival in New York for the Breeders' Cup last year. As there are no dirt tracks in Ireland, O'Brien had used the same technique with Giant's Causeway the year before.

The relationship that Arena and its president, Ron Muddle, have developed with O'Brien seems to have played a role in the establishment of the new Kentucky Derby Trial Lingfield will run on April 6, a hallowed date on the British racing calendar as it is the day of the Grand National Steeplechase.

O'Brien is considering two other Derby-nominated horses for Lingfield, Hawk Wing and Castle Gandolfo. They were at Lingfield for a workout last Tuesday with Johannesburg, in addition to Rock of Gibraltar and Sholokhov, a pair who are not nominated to the Derby.

All are Group 1 winners except Castle Gandolfo, who was second in the 1 1/4-mile, Group 1 Criterium de Saint-Cloud in November. Johannesburg cantered a mile Tuesday with Rock of Gibraltar and the 5-year-old Shoal Creek. Hawk Wing, Castle Gandolfo, and Sholokhov did likewise in another group.

Whether the one-mile race is in the best interests of Johannesburg in his preparations for a possible attempt at the Kentucky Derby is debatable. According to the conditions of the race, Johannesburg, a four-time Group 1 or Grade 1 winner, will have to carry just three pounds more than any colt or gelding that is not a Grade 1 winner. That is to say, he would carry just three pounds more than a maiden.

Another question is, what kind of competition will Johannesburg face if he lines up at Lingfield on April 6?

Because the race is an allowance, there is no black type to attract rivals, in spite of the $71,400 purse, which is large for a conditions race in England. British trainers are always wary of running lesser types against a Group 1 winner because if they finish close behind him or, heaven forbid, beat him, the Jockey Club handicapper will assign that horse a high rating, and it becomes very difficult to place him in a race with a winning chance for weeks or even months to come.

This means that horses in the listed race or conditions race category may not want to try Johannesburg, especially at the weights, which were clearly contrived by Lingfield to attract Johannesburg or one of his classy stablemates.

So of what value will this race be to Johannesburg? Probably no more, and possibly less, than if he had run in the seven-furlong, Group 3 Gladness Stakes at the Curragh on April 7, when he would be meeting older horses, some of whom would possess group race credentials. The Lingfield race, while well intentioned, could turn into a largely intramural contest. In fact, if Johannesburg runs, it may develop into little more than a public workout for him.

Meanwhile, O'Brien will have his first runners of the Irish season at the Curragh on Sunday. Two of them, Tasmanian Tiger and Century City, are nominated to the Triple Crown. A Storm Cat colt, Tasmanian Tiger was third in his lone start at 2. He will go in a seven-furlong maiden on ground that will be soft to heavy. Century City, by Danzig out of champion Canadian filly Alywow, runs in the seven-furlong, listed Loughbrown Stakes against just three rivals.

World Series seeking new sponsor

On the Maktoum front, Godolphin announced on Wednesday a sponsorship deal with Emirates Airlines worth $10 million. Beginning March 24, jockeys riding for Godolphin in Britain will carry the Emirates logo on their silks.

The deal comes in the wake of the announcement that Emirates is discontinuing its sponsorship of the World Series Racing Championship. The series, which has been expanded to 13 races this year with the addition of the Queen Elizabeth II Cup at Sha Tin on April 21 and the Singapore Airlines International Cup at Kranji on May 11, is negotiating for a new sponsor. Nick Clarke, the series' executive director, promised on Thursday that a new backer would be in place by midsummer.

It is odds-on that the new sponsor will have a Maktoum/UAE connection of one sort or another.