10/22/2001 11:00PM

Not enough to be good, you've got to be dirt-y

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Europe's best horses have come to Belmont Park for the World Thoroughbred Championships, and even a cursory scan of their records leaves no doubt that they are top-class.

Galileo won the Epsom Derby and the Irish Derby with ease, and then beat England's best older horses in June - an exceptional feat for a 3-year-old. Only one photo-finish loss blemishes his seven-race career.

Fantastic Light was the horse who beat Galileo in an Irish stakes race last month. That 5-year-old has won important races in five different countries and earned more than $6.3 million.

Sakhee has made three starts this season and won them all, most recently scoring a stunning six-length triumph in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, France's most important race.

Undefeated Johannesburg has stamped himself as the best 2-year-old in Europe, handily winning Grade 1 stakes in Ireland, France, and England in his last three starts.

But there is one question about the European invaders that is sure to perplex handicappers, as well as the animals' owners and trainers. These stars have earned their lofty reputations running on grass courses in Europe, and now are entered in races on the dirt for the first time in their lives.

The decision to run an outstanding grass horse on Belmont's main track is a pretty costly gamble. Galileo, Sakhee, or Fantastic Light would be favored in the Turf, which offers a $2 million purse. Nobody would pass up a chance to win such a rich, prestigious race on a whim. So their owners and trainers must know when their horses will be able to handle the dirt, right?

Well, based on past history, they don't - even though trainers regularly test their horses on dirt before entering them. During the past decade, a total of 51 horses have run on dirt for the first time in the Breeders' Cup, and most have not been remotely competitive. Twenty of these horses finished tenth or worse, and only three of them won.

Indeed, the Europeans usually can't offer convincing reasons why they think their horses will like the dirt. Simon Crisford, manager of the racing operations of Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, said both Fantastic Light and Sakhee were being considered for the Classic (although it is probable that only one will run in this race, while the other will go in the Turf). Asked why, he explained: "It's the race that everyone wants to win. We have plenty of turf championships in Europe. When we've achieved all we can achieve on turf, then we want to do something a little bit different." Of Sakhee, he said, "We have no evidence that he will go on the main track. We just don't know except to say that he's a brilliant horse. Whatever type of surface, whatever type of opposition, he's going to be extremely competitive because he's that brilliant."

Most American racing fans - who regularly observe horses moving from turf to dirt, and vice versa - would question such reasoning. It is a rare Thoroughbred who displays the same level of talent on both surfaces. Cigar was an allowance-class runner on grass before he switched to the dirt and won 16 straight races. Chief Bearhart and Buck's Boy were no more than allowance horses on dirt but won the Breeders' Cup Turf in 1997 and 1998.

Handicappers in the U.S. have learned, from ample evidence, the most important factor in determining a horse's chance of success on a different surface. It's not the way he trains. (Many turf horses work decently but can't compete effectively on dirt.) Although many Europeans don't seem to realize it, the key factor is the horse's pedigree.

To assess whether this factor has been as significant in the Breeders' Cup as in ordinary races, I examined the 51 horses who made the turf-to-dirt switch in the last 10 years. I classified them as having either turf pedigrees or dirt pedigrees. (If a horse was by a European sire but his dam had been a successful dirt runner, he was deemed to have a dirt pedigree.)

Of 22 horses with dirt pedigrees, nine finished in the top four (41 percent.)

The only one of these to win was the sensational 2-year-old Arazi in 1991. But last year Giant's Causeway (a son of the top U.S. sire Storm Cat) ran well enough to win the Classic, losing a photo finish. Swain (who is out of a stakes-winning mare on the dirt) might have won the 1998 Classic if his jockey had managed to keep him running in a straight line.

Of 29 horses with turf pedigrees, three finished in the top four (10 percent.)

Most grass-bred horses flopped miserably. But the small minority that did run creditably created shock waves. In 1991, the turf-bred Sheikh Albadou scored a $54.60 upset in the Sprint. And in 1993, Arcangues - with nothing but turf in his bloodlines - scored the greatest upset in Breeders' Cup history when he rallied to win and pay $269.20. Even the European chauvinists at their respective Breeders' Cups hadn't tried to make a case for either of these animals.

What do we make of these somewhat contradictory data? A horse is much more apt to run well if he is bred for dirt. But the turf-bred runners who succeed do so with apparent randomness. Being a brilliant performer on the grass doesn't seem to help a horse's chances.

Of the Europeans in this year's events, the 2-year-old Johannesburg has purely American bloodlines. Fantastic Light has acceptable dirt credentials; his sire Rahy could run on both surfaces.

But the much acclaimed Galileo is not bred for dirt; his sire and dam, Sadler's Wells and Urban Sea, were strictly turf runners. Sakhee (by the stallion Bahri) has nothing but turf in his pedigree for the last two generations. Either could be one of the random horses who makes the transition, but the fact that they were great runners in Europe does not count for much. The odds will be stacked against them Saturday.

(c) 2001, The Washington Post