02/13/2004 12:00AM

Niarchos family holds strong hand in France

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Stavros Niarchos lives!

The late Greek shipping magnate made his first big international splash in racing when Miesque, winner of both the English and French 1000 Guineas, won consecutive Breeders' Cup Miles in 1987 and 1988. Horses owned by Niarchos won 11 European classics from 1982 to his death in 1997. Among them were Hector Protector, Kingmambo, Hernando, Spinning World, and Miesque's best daughter, East of the Moon, the only filly to pull off the French 1000 Guineas/French Oaks double in the last 25 years.

Since 1998 the Niarchos family, under the guidance of Stavros's American-born widow, Maria, has won three more European classics with Dream Well and Sulamani. And, in Miesque-like style, they pulled off a Breeders' Cup Mile double these past two years with Domedriver in 2002 and Six Perfections in 2003.

We can expect to hear more from Famille Niarchos this year, as they own 2003 European champion 2-year-old Bago and the French champion 2-year-old filly, Denebola.

Trained by Jonathan Pease, Bago is a particularly exciting prospect. He is a son of Nashwan out of Moonlight's Box, who herself is a daughter of another great Stavros Niarchos-owned horse, Nureyev. Bago is undefeated after four starts, the last of which was a six-length cakewalk in the one-mile Group 1 Criterium International at Saint-Cloud on Nov. 1.

That is the race in which Dalakhani completed his champion juvenile season in 2002 for the Aga Khan, and Bago appears to be equipped to carry on in the same vein. While the 1 1/2 miles of the Prix du Jockey-Club (French Derby) might be a tad too long for Bago, a shot at France's best race for 3-year-olds is on his agenda after a try at one or another of the 2000 Guineas.

Denebola, a prime candidate for all of the European 1000 Guineas, improved to win the one-mile Group 1 Prix Marcel Boussac at Longchamp for trainer Pascal Bary, beating Green Noon by a neck. By Storm Cat out of the Mr. Prospector mare Coup de Genie, Denebola is a half-sister to French Group 3 winner Loving Kindness and American Grade 3 winner Snake Mountain. Even more interestingly, Denebola is a half-sister to Bago's dam, Moonlight's Box.

The Niarchoses, you see, like to keep it in the family. That is the key to success in breeding, as Khalid Abdullah well knows.

In addition to the British-trained Three Valleys, the Juddmonte maestro has a pair of 3-year-olds in France that should play a prominent role in the European classic season.

Already a two-time Group 1 winner, American Post is the most exciting of these. Trained by Criquette Head-Maarek, American Post surged to win the one-mile Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere (formerly the Grand Criterium) by four lengths on Arc day, but didn't have to do as much when taking a four-runner Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster on Oct. 25.

American Post is by 1986 French Derby winner Bering, out of the Sadler's Wells mare Wells Fargo, herself a half-sister to St. Leger runner-up High and Low. American Post clearly has 12 furlongs within his grasp, but whether he will be seen in the Epsom Derby on June 5 or at Chantilly for the French Derby the next day remains to be seen.

Abdullah also has a Barathea colt named Apsis with trainer Andre Fabre. Out of the Shirley Heights mare Apogee, Apsis was 2 for 2 as a 2-year-old, capping his brief but perfect campaign with a three-length victory in the Group 3 Prix Thomas Bryon over a mile at Saint-Cloud on Oct. 14. He is a half to Dance Routine, winner of the Group 2 Prix de Royallieu at 1 9/16 miles, and since Apogee won the 1 1/2-mile Group 3 Prix de Royaumont, the French Derby is within Apsis's range.

Voix du Nord must come into derby considerations. A son of 1 1/4-mile Grand Prix de Paris winner Valanour, out of a Top Ville mare, this David Smaga trainee won the 1 1/4-mile Group 1 Criterium de Saint-Cloud by 1 1/2 lengths over Simplex on Nov. 8. Voix du Nord should stay 1 1/2 miles, but has 3 3/4 lengths to find on Bago off his fourth-place finish behind the champ in the Group 3 Prix des Chenes at one mile.

Another to keep tabs on is the Lagardere family's Diamond Green, a Group 3-winning Fabre trainee who would have started as the favorite for the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere but was scratched due to the sticky ground.

A pair of sleepers who won good allowance races at Longchamp on Oct. 26 are also notable. Malevitch, a son of Exit to Nowhere owned by Ecurie Wildenstein and trained by Elie Lellouche, is out of French Oaks runner-up Miss Tahiti. He followed his 1 1/8-mile maiden score that day with a win in a 1 1/4-mile allowance at Saint-Cloud on Nov. 26.

Esneh, a 2 1/2-length maiden winner going 1 1/8 miles, is a Sadler's Wells filly owned by Wertheimer & Frere and trained by Head-Maarek. She is a strong candidate to emulate her half-sister Egyptband, who won the French Oaks in 2000.

Next time I will preview the best 3-year-olds in Ireland, where trainers Aidan O'Brien and Dermot Weld have a stranglehold on the leading classic prospects.