09/24/2003 11:00PM

Moon Ballad gets his track


ELMONT, N.Y. - There are many fascinating aspects to Belmont Park's superb, world-class program on Saturday, which includes the $750,000 Turf Classic, the $750,000 Flower Bowl for fillies and mares on the turf`, and the $500,000 Vosburgh at 6 1/2 furlongs.

Perhaps the most interesting revelation of the afternoon, however, may come out of the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup as Moon Ballad crosses the Atlantic to challenge some of the best American horses in training at their own game. Moon Ballad, who earlier this season won the world's richest race - the $6 million Dubai World Cup on a dirt track - will be making his U.S. debut. He has run well all summer against some of the best horses in Europe. Can he do as well over here? Is there a significant difference between European form and American form?

Moon Ballad, a 4-year-old colt by Singspiel (winner of the Japan Cup, Canadian International, and England's Coronation Cup), was not exactly a marquee name when he hit the headlines last spring by winning the World Cup in Dubai. He showed some ability at 3, finishing third in the Epsom Derby, but seemed to lack the focus of a champion.

"He began to mature during the winter in Dubai," trainer Saeed bin Suroor said by phone from Newmarket. "He trained well and ran a very good race to win the World Cup. We were pleased that he handled the sand track so well and decided that he would race in America later in the season."

Moon Ballad disappointed in the Prince of Wales's Stakes at Royal Ascot but came back with a good effort in the Grade 1 Sussex Mile at Goodwood, displaying speed to be beaten less than a length. That prompted his Godolphin Racing connections to send him to face a strong field in the Group 1 Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown.

Going 1 1/4 miles under 130 pounds, he showed speed and courage to be beaten two lengths in a race won by High Chaparral, winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Turf.

"Because he ran well on sand in the World Cup," bin Suroor said, "we're hoping his form will improve on Saturday as he returns to a sand track for the Jockey Club Gold Cup. If he runs well, it is likely he will be sent to Santa Anita for the Breeders' Cup Classic next month."

Moon Ballad has no easy assignment for his American debut. The favored Mineshaft, an impressive winner of the recent Woodward Stakes here, is probably the best horse in the country. But the small field of only five offers limitless opportunities for mischief.

With the defection of Empire Maker, who has a cut on the outside of his left front foot, just above the coronet band, Jerry Bailey will have the mount on Moon Ballad in the Gold Cup. Bailey has an expert touch with speed horses, making aggressive use of their speed. He may be able to give Moon Ballad the edge he needs to make the Gold Cup a special occasion.