03/25/2004 12:00AM

The long, wrong road to Louisville


NEW YORK - The rich World Cup card Saturday is a monument to the spectacular racing achievements of Dubai's ruling Maktoum family. A tiny patch of desert that few people in racing had even heard of a generation ago is now the site of the world's richest race, and the $6 million purse for the main event has prompted the two best dirt horses on the planet, Pleasantly Perfect and Medaglia d'Oro, to travel a great distance for a Breeders' Cup Classic rematch.

Whereas the purse and field for the World Cup are a reflection of the Maktoums' global impact on racing, another event on Saturday's calendar is a reminder of a less successful pursuit. Late nominations for the American Triple Crown races close a few hours after the World Cup, and it appears the Maktoums will not have a horse in this year's Kentucky Derby, continuing a record of futility in a quest that has been a spectacular failure.

Captain Ahab was no more obsessive in his pursuit of the white whale than Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum has been of the roses on the first Saturday in May. Yet after spending hundreds of millions on Derby prospects, he's still waiting for even a whiff.

"We will win the Derby within four years," Sheikh Mohammed said one morning at Churchill Downs. That was in 1998, six years ago. Since then, the prize has grown more distant each year: Worldly Manner ran seventh in 1999, China Visit was sixth and Curule seventh in 2000, Express Tour was eighth in 2001, and Essence of Dubai ninth in 2002.

It is not as if other titans of the turf haven't tried for a Derby for longer with similar results. C. V. Whitney was 0 for 15 in the Derby between 1933 and 1968. It's not an easy race to win. Yet no one has spent more or focused on it more than the Maktoums, and no one has gone about it in such a peculiar and stubborn fashion.

Sheikh Mohammed probably could have bought himself a Derby winner by now just by opening his checkbook and buying a few favorites every April. But his obsession is not just with winning the race, but with winning it his way: by training horses up to the Derby with a winter in the Arabian desert, under the tutelage of one of his own trainers. He has had a dozen colts who might have been competitive on Derby Day had they wintered in California or Florida with a Baffert, Lukas, or Zito. Instead, they gallop in Dubai for Saeed bin Suroor, arrive for the Derby undertrained and underraced, and run like short horses.

Godolphin might have had its strongest candidate ever this year in Ruler's Court, whose handling last fall remains completely baffling. After winning the Norfolk Stakes by 14 lengths, with a Beyer Speed Figure of 102, Ruler's Court would have been a solid favorite to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile over the same track three weeks later (which would have earned him the 2-year-old championship and winter-book Derby favoritism). It seems likely he could have, since the race drew a dismal field and was won by a last-out maiden graduate who romped while running only a 92.

Yet Godolphin called it a season with Ruler's Court, insisting he was perfectly healthy but that it would better serve his long-term interests to get back to Dubai sooner for their patented Derby prep regimen. A few weeks later, Godolphin said Ruler's Court had injured a knee, and he is just now starting a return to training. Godolphin's other top prospect, Rosberg, underwent ankle surgery after arriving in Dubai for the winter. Godolphin may drop another name or two in as late Triple Crown nominations Saturday, but only as longshot Belmont Stakes possibilities, not for the Derby.

"When we have the right horse, we'll be there," Simon Crisford, Godolphin's racing manager, told Daily Racing Form's Steve Andersen this week in Dubai. "We did have the right horse in Ruler's Court, and possibly Rosberg. Unfortunately, both have had problems."

Godolphin's frustrating Derby quest speaks not only to one man's determination, but also to a fundamental difference in American and European racing. Godolphin and Coolmore dominate European grass racing through pedigree and volume, and have repeatedly won classics there with the same light training methods that have been such a bust in pursuit of the Kentucky Derby, not only for the Godolphin horses, but also with other lightly campaigned European-based stars such as Arazi and Johannesburg.

Monty Roberts, the controversial "horse whisperer," has been spending time with Sheikh Mohammed this winter in Dubai. Perhaps Roberts could whisper into the Sheikh's ear that it's going to be a lot longer than four years before Godolphin wins a Kentucky Derby if they keep sending their horses to Dubai for the winter.