10/25/2001 11:00PM

Odd how Godolphin spotted its stars


ELMONT, N.Y. - The decision by Godolphin to run Fantastic Light in the Breeders' Cup Turf is surpassed as an unexpected development only by the stable's decision to run Sakhee in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Not only has Belmont been denied a long-anticipated, mouth-watering rubber match between Fantastic Light and Galileo in the Classic, but the decision also raises questions once again about the choices made by Godolphin concerning its American operation in general. Godolphin has been out of the money in three tries in the Kentucky Derby, the stable's most coveted goal.

Upon hearing the news that Galileo would be facing Sakhee and not Fantastic Light in the Turf, Galileo's trainer, Aidan O'Brien, said, "We were happy to meet either." But O'Brien and owners John Magnier and Michael Tabor must be thankful for the seemingly reduced threat that will be offered by Sakhee.

Despite the switcheroo, the red-hot rivalry remains intact between Godolphin, the racing operation owned by Dubai's ruling family, the Maktoums, and O'Brien's Ballydoyle yard. The two stables have dominated racing in Europe this year as O'Brien has won 19 Group 1 races while Godolphin has won 12. Now, Galileo seemingly has a better chance of ending his career with a Classic victory that only narrowly escaped his former stablemate, Giant's Causeway, last year.

Throughout the summer Galileo had been hailed as a wonderhorse in Europe. His three-length victory in the Epsom Derby was accomplished with such aplomb that O'Brien quipped that the son of Sadler's Wells "could gallop on water."

He made quick work of the Irish Derby, then exposed Fantastic Light's inability to stay 1 1/2 miles in top-class company with a stouthearted victory in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes.

Much has been made of Galileo's bloodlines being nonconducive to dirt racing, but this son of the Arc-winning Miswaki mare Urban Sea has a low action that bodes well for the Classic. Given his undoubted class, his high cruising speed, and the experience O'Brien and jockey Michael Kinane picked up last year at Churchill Downs, Galileo appears to be in a nice spot for his first race on dirt.

His position looks even better with the defection of Fantastic Light and the recent questionable form of Tiznow and Albert the Great. It must be noted, however, that Galileo would probably stand a better chance of victory in the Turf, even if Sakhee had gone in that race.

All of Galileo's best performances have come at 1 1/2 miles, but at this stage Coolmore boss John Magnier is more interested in raising stud fees than in winning races.

In fact, the prime reason Galileo goes in the Classic is an attempt to elevate his stud value. Last year, Giant's Causeway's fee jumped $25,000 after his second-place finish in the Classic. What kind of a fee would Galileo command if he wins on Saturday?

What about Sakhee's chances in the Classic? He has a number of things going for him. He is lightly raced, he has won over the Classic distance, taking the Juddmonte International Stakes by seven lengths, and he is absolutely top-class.

But he has a high, rounded action better suited to turf than to dirt, upon which he will also be making his initial start.

Running Fantastic Light in the Turf - where he will line up against the O'Brien-trained Arc fifth-place finisher, Milan - would not be a bad decision if the Classic were not on the card.

From a breeding standpoint, Fantastic Light, who is by Rahy, would appear to be a better choice for dirt racing than the Bahri colt Sakhee. Moreover, Fantastic Light has never won a Group or Grade 1 race going

1 1/2 miles. Not only was he exposed at that distance by Galileo in the King George, he was embarrassed on his home track, Nad Al Sheba, in March when the Japanese-trained Stay Gold caught him at the wire in the Dubai Sheema Classic.

While this is hardly the best Turf in the 18-year history of the Breeders' Cup, it is a better race than the Sheema Classic. Fantastic Light will go off as the favorite, but he is vulnerable and not nearly as sure a thing as Sakhee would have been.

Running Fantastic Light in the Turf does make more sense, however, if Sakhee is scratched from the Classic. Could it be that the Arc winner Sakhee is headed for the Japan Cup instead?

In any event, we have a Breeders' Cup in which the three highest-rated horses in the world have managed to elude the races in which they appeared to have the best chance of victory, offering bettors a problem the sagest of wise men would have difficulty resolving.

On Tuesday, before the Godolphin brain trust had made its head-scratching decision, jockey Frankie Dettori pointed out that "Fantastic Light was formerly owned by Sheikh Maktoum, Sakhee was formerly owned by Sheikh Hamdan, but they are both controlled now by Sheikh Mohammed, so there is a bit of a boxing match going on," concerning which race in which they would run.

The preliminaries in the palaces of distant Dubai having been completed, it would appear that both Sakhee and Fantastic Light have emerged with their noses bloodied even before they have reached the starting gate.