11/04/2005 12:00AM

Proof stamina is not yet extinct

EPA/Julian Smith
Makybe Diva wins the two-mile Melbourne Cup for a record third time.

NEW YORK - The exploits of three Thoroughbreds whose stamina propelled them to championship status were brought to the fore this past month even as Makybe Diva, Westerner, and Best Mate all bid farewell to the racecourse.

The accomplishments of that trio in an age when the emphasis is placed increasingly - and in some places exclusively - on speed must offer encouragement to anyone who believes that the Thoroughbred racehorse has always been intended to display qualities beyond an ability to get six furlongs in less than 1:10. Each of those three gave added meaning to the term "stayer," a word for which there is no longer an apt reference in America.

Makybe Diva, a British-bred mare by Irish Derby winner Desert King out of the Riverman mare Tugela, electrified the antipodes on Tuesday by winning the two-mile Melbourne Cup for the third year in succession. Never before in the 145-year history of Australia's greatest race had any horse done that. The Aussies this week were comparing Makybe Diva to the legendary Phar Lap and are to be congratulated for not having caved in to the forces of the speed demons who have so debilitated the Thoroughbred in America, just as they are to be envied for providing a stage enabling horses to produce such heroics. We have not seen anything like Makybe Diva in the United States since Kelso, the five-time winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup from 1960 through 1964 when that race was run at the same distance as the Melbourne Cup.

Like Kelso, Makybe Diva is a testament to the fact that stayers can command the hearts and minds of the racegoing public to an extent that sprinters and even milers can only dream about. The same is true of Westerner and Best Mate, horses from parts of the racing world far removed from Australia.

Westerner, probably the best French stayer since Sagaro, the three-time winner of the 2 1/2-mile Ascot Gold Cup from 1975 through 1977, pulled off a remarkable Group 1 double when he won consecutive runnings of both the 2 1/2-mile Prix du Cadran and the 1 15/16-mile Prix Royal-Oak, or French St. Leger, in 2003 and 2004. An Ascot Gold Cup title which had narrowly eluded him in 2004 was duly taken this year at York, giving the 6-year-old Westerner a total of five career Group 1 victories.

Both Makybe Diva and Westerner put the lie to the perception that stayers are merely plodders. Makybe Diva in particular disproves that idea. In the past year she has won two Group 1 races going 1 1/4 miles, including a record-setting performance in the Australian Cup in which she set a Flemington course record of 1:58.73, a time rarely approached on turf or dirt in America in the last 10 years. She also won the 1 1/2-mile Group 1 BMW Classic and gave some notable speedsters a thrashing when she won the seven-furlong Group 2 Memsie Stakes.

While Westerner lacked Makybe Diva's turn of foot, he proved his class at the very highest level when finishing second to the redoubtable Hurricane Run in this year's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, finishing 2 1/4 lengths in front of subsequent Breeders' Cup Turf winner Shirocco, a performance that puts him about 10 lengths in front of America's leading middle-distance horses.

Makybe Diva and Westerner have both been retired, with Westerner having been bought by Coolmore Stud to serve as a jumps stallion in Ireland. It can only be hoped that some of his offspring find their way back into flat racing.

The British jump racing community has been in mourning since Tuesday when the great chaser Best Mate died of a heart attack while contesting the Grade 2 Haldon Gold Cup Chase at Exeter. Deemed the best British chaser since Arkle, a horse whose three consecutive victories in the 3 1/4-mile Cheltenham Gold Cup from 1964 to 1966 were matched by Best Mate between 2002 and 2004, the 10-year-old Irish-bred Best Mate was the product of a mating between a stout-hearted French sire line and a female family descended from a British-trained Kentucky-bred and an American-owned British-bred whose influences have been far more evident in Europe than in America.

By the French-bred stallion Un Desperado, himself a son of the stamina-inducing sire Top Ville, Best Mate was out of the French-bred mare Katday, herself a daughter of Miller's Mate, who in turn was sired by Paul Mellon's gift to British racing, Mill Reef, and foaled by a mare sired by Nelson Bunker Hunt's Arc winner Vaguely Noble.

Sadly, there is no room on the American racing calendar for horses such as Makybe Diva, Westerner, or Best Mate, and the sport in this country is all the poorer for that. The absence of stamina influences in American racing is something to ponder as we scratch our heads in attempting to determine which of the second stringers on view at last Saturday's Breeders' Cup is deserving of championship honors. The Australians and the Europeans will have no such difficulties.