04/22/2003 12:00AM

Rousing start to flat season

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DUBLIN - With the flat season in Great Britain gathering steam, bookies across the land breathed a sigh of relief when John Bailey, the notorious "Pencil Man," was sentenced to three years in prison for defrauding small, independent betting shops out of hundreds of thousands of pounds. Bailey, who has served two previous prison terms for similar scams and considers jail an occupational hazard, shouted in court that the proceedings were an "effing disgrace."

Bailey worked his wonders by confusing clerks. In betting shops, punters write their wagers on slips of paper stamped with the time and date. Bailey would shuffle around multiple bets as a distraction, then would swipe blank stamped slips and later fill them in with winners after a race had been run. The judge, deeply unimpressed with the scheme, called him a "brazen predator," while the chairman of the Association of British Bookmakers expressed predictable approval over the verdict.

In the wake of Bailey's conviction, we were treated to the spring's first big meet on the flat - the Craven, a three-day affair. It took place at the historic Newmarket Racecourses in East Anglia, where racing has been conducted for over 300 years, since the reign of James I. The Newmarket area is a paradise for horses, with more than 3,000 Thoroughbreds in training at various stables. Most mornings, you can see hundreds of horses out for a gallop on the bridlepaths that border the approach roads to the city.

James I gets the credit for establishing racing at Newmarket, but it was really Charles II who brought the sport to prominence, turning up twice a year with the entire royal court and his mistress Nell Gwyn - "witty, pretty Nell," as Samuel Pepys described her. Nell started as a humble seller of oranges in London theatres, became the most famous actress of her era, had two illegitimate children with Charles, and died of an apoplectic fit fortunately unrelated to any bad luck that might have befallen her at the track.

How appropriate, then, that the major race on the Craven's first day should be called the Shadwell Stud Nell Gwyn Stakes in her honor. The race for 3-year-old fillies, at seven furlongs with no turns, is often a prep for the big-purse Sagitta 1000 Guineas in early May, one of the British classics. It was run on The Rowley Mile course, a very wide turf strip where the gate can be positioned on the stands' side, in the center of the course, or against the inside rail, as it was for the Nell Gwyn.

Of the eight fillies going to post, the most fancied was Khulood, a lovely, high-strung chestnut by Storm Cat out of Elle Seule. Her pricey pedigree suggested class in barrels. As one wit sagely put it, "Even if she were for sale, nobody could afford her."

Trainer John Dunlop remarked before the race that Khulood could be difficult to handle, and when she reached the gate she did put up a fuss before she entered her stall.

Khulood's main opponent was expected to be Hector's Girl, who is trained by Sir Michael Stoute, always among the leading conditioners in the U.K. But Hector's Girl got pinned on the rail, pulled hard, ran greenly, and refused to settle, while Khulood broke swiftly and cleanly and led throughout, an impressive performance that lowered her morning-line odds for the 1000 Guineas from 16-1 to 8-1.

The drawing card on the third day was the Craven Stakes, a mile-long trial for colts headed for the Sagitta 2000 Guineas, the other half of the Classic pair. Billed as an Oedipal struggle between John Dunlop (Maghanim) and his son Ed (Battle Chant), it failed to live up to the hype. Both colts wound up out of the money behind Hurricane Alan, a 9-1 longshot that none of the 17 pundits in the Racing Post's selection box had tabbed as the potential winner.

Mixed in among the important races were some curious races that make Euro-racing such frustrating fun for handicappers. The oddly named NGK Spark Plugs Abernant Stakes, for instance, featured a field of colts and geldings whose ages ranged from 4 to 11. Tedburrow, the elder statesman, won his first race in 1994, long before most of his challengers were born - the stories he could tell! He already had 83 starts on the turf, too, so his fifth-place finish was no disgrace under the circumstances.

Meanwhile, Aidan O'Brien was busy in Ireland, strutting his stuff at Leopardstown, the track outside Dublin that, along with The Curragh, is his home away from home. He had Alberto Giacometti, highly touted for the Epsom Derby, entered in the Ballysax Stakes, with Michael Kinane in the irons. Since 1999, the O'Brien-Kinane team has accounted for 59 winners in 138 starts at Leopardstown, a strike rate of 43 percent, so it surprised nobody when the colt's odds tumbled toward even money.

But it was another of O'Brien's sparkling 3-year-olds that stole the show. Balestrini, purchased for over $2 million at the Goffs Orby sale in 2001, left the gate like a heat-seeking missile. At first, everyone assumed he was serving as a pacemaking rabbit for the favorite, but Alberto Giacometti disappointed and couldn't get near him, and Balestrini rewarded his backers by winning at 33-1. The only colt who troubled him at all was the fast-closing Alamshar, currently about 6-1 for the Derby.

After the race, there was some debate about just how fast Alamshar had really closed. Leopardstown doesn't supply fractional times, nor do other top tracks in Britain and Ireland, so it's tough to rate a performance in terms of speed unless you're packing a stopwatch. Fractional times don't matter much to some horsemen over here, although you couldn't prove it by the canny O'Brien, who has installed a clocking system on his gallops at Ballydoyle in Tipperary, fine-tuning an operation that's already frighteningly efficient.