03/26/2004 12:00AM

More races for females

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NEW YORK - A beefed up schedule of group races for older fillies and mares, a healthy number of top-class older horses remaining in training, and a 3-year-old crop that looks vastly superior to that in America are just some of the anticipated highlights of the nascent European racing season.

The European Pattern Race Committee has nearly doubled the number of group races restricted to fillies and mares to 39 in 2004. The Prix Vermeille, until now a Group 1 race at 1 1/2 miles for 3-year-old fillies, has been opened to older females. The Prix d'Astarte, the Falmouth Stakes, the Sun Chariot Stakes, and the Matron Stakes, all run at one mile, have been upgraded to Group 1 status. Royal Ascot will add a brand new Group 2 event for older fillies and mares, the 1 1/4-mile Windsor Forest Stakes, on June 16. And on May 7, Chantilly will introduce a new, similarly conditioned Group 3 race, the Prix Allez France.

This is all in addition to a dozen former listed races for older fillies and mares that have attained Group 3 status by a wave of the Pattern Race Committee's wand, as well as a plethora of former allowance races now classified as listed events, most of them in England.

As recently as 2002, Europe was running just 20 group races for older fillies and mares. The reason behind the radical increase is an attempt to stem the flow of talented fillies to America, where equal opportunity for both Thoroughbred sexes has long been a way of life.

Continuing a recent trend, many leading European owners have decided to keep their best older horses in training. The Niarchos family will keep Six Perfections in training with Pascal Bary, who will point the Breeders' Cup Mile winner at the best one-mile races in Europe.

Sulamani, held out of a defense of his Dubai Sheema Classic title this weekend, will return for Godolphin in the Tattersalls Gold Cup at the Curragh on May 23 and may well be back in America by autumn. Godolphin will also send Vespone, winner of last year's Grand Prix de Paris, to Sha Tin for the Queen Elizabeth II Cup on April 25 before shipping him to Newmarket for the European season.

Two other 5-year-olds to keep an eye on are the Marcus Tregoning-trained Mubtaker, the Arc runner-up who suffered a minor setback in Italy while preparing for the Dubai Sheema Classic, and Rakti, the ex-Italian now trained by Michael Jarvis who won last year's Champion Stakes before chasing home Falbrav in the Hong Kong Cup.

Aidan O'Brien will have both his St. Leger winner Brian Boru and his Great Voltigeur winner Powerscourt back. Phoenix Reach, who won the Canadian International while beating third-place Brian Boru, will return for Andrew Balding in the Eclipse Stakes after recovering from leg surgery. Magistretti, runner-up in the Grand Prix de Paris and Great Voltigeur, returns for Neville Callaghan, and German Derby winner Dai Jin remains in training with Andreas Schutz.

Three older fillies who should benefit from the improved filly and mare program are French Oaks and Prix du Moulin winner Nebraska Tornado; three-time Group 1 winner Russian Rhythm; Yesterday, the Irish 1000 Guineas winner who was runner-up in three Group 1 races last year; and Hong Kong Vase winner Vallee Enchantee.

The European classic crop looks unusually deep, especially in France, where juvenile champ Bago currently rules the roost at Jonathan Pease's Chantilly yard. Don't be surprised, however, if American Post, a Group 1 winner in both France and England for owner Khalid Abdullah and trainer Criquette Head-Maarek, emerges as the best 3-year-old in Europe, as the Bering colt has the speed to win at a mile and, with Sadler's Wells as his broodmare sire, the stamina to stay 1 1/2 miles.

Two-time Group 1 winner One Cool Cat will go in the 2000 Guineas without benefit of a prep race. His trainer, Aidan O'Brien, will send his highly promising Sadler's Wells colt Yeats on the same road to Epsom as his previous Derby winners Galileo and High Chaparral, that is, through the Ballysax Stakes on April 18 and the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial on May 9.

Dermot Weld may have an ace-in-the-hole in undefeated Group 3 winner Grey Swallow. Weld is also thinking of sending his Fasliyev filly Misty Heights to Hollywood in search of a follow-up to Dimitrova's American Oaks heroics.

The early 3-year-old filly season could be dominated by Denebola, the Pascal Bary-trained winner of the Prix Marcel Boussac, and Carry on Katie, who will skip Godolphin's private trials at Nad Al Sheba on Monday and head straight to the 1000 Guineas on May 2.

On the jockey front, the big news is the much ballyhooed teaming of Gary Stevens and Andre Fabre. Jamie Spencer has replaced Michael Kinane as Aidan O'Brien's first string. And Godolphin is importing Australian champ Kerrin McEvoy as second string to Frankie Dettori, who has promised to ride more frequently in England during a year that holds more than the usual number of springtime promises.