10/29/2001 12:00AM

Sad day for American Thoroughbreds

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ELMONT, N.Y. - There was plenty of flag-waving in the ceremonies that preceded the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, but the races at Belmont Park did not generate much nationalistic pride. Rather, they underscored the declining state of America's Thoroughbreds - and the ascendancy of Europe's.

European runners were so dominant in two of the turf races that no U.S. horse finished within five lengths of them. That was not a shock, because racing on grass is the Europeans' game. But they excelled at America's game, too. Sakhee, racing on dirt for the first time, narrowly lost to the resolute Tiznow in the $4 million Classic. The Irish-based colt Johannesburg won the Juvenile, his first race on dirt, establishing himself as the early favorite for the 2002 Kentucky Derby.

That was the biggest blow to U.S. pride because it ended the five-race winning streak of Officer, the 2-year-old who had been hailed as the game's budding new star. American racing has not seen for many years a colt who might be labeled a superhorse and Officer seemingly had the potential to deserve that label. His flop Saturday continues a disheartening trend. The only horses who merit the adjective "great'' have been based overseas.

This was an almost inevitable development since foreign buyers - notably the Maktoum brothers of Dubai - began to dominate American horse auctions and acquire this country's best Thoroughbred genes. After two decades of buying top pedigrees and breeding their own horses, foreigners own the world's best horses and race them principally in England and France. While America hungers for one great racing star, Europe has had a parade of them. Last year: Giant's Causeway, Kalanisi, and Montjeu. This year: Fantastic Light, Galileo, and Sakhee, all of whom ran Saturday at Belmont Park. Fantastic Light dominated the Turf. Galileo, virtually unbeatable on grass, wasn't effective on dirt, but Sakhee was and emerged as a star.

Sakhee had been attempting a historic feat. He had won Europe's preeminent race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, by six lengths. (The others who had won that event by comparable margins, Ribot and Sea-Bird, are considered two of the greatest horses of the 20th century.) Only three weeks after that triumph, Sakhee crossed the Atlantic to race on dirt for the first time - the first horse to attempt an Arc-Classic double. "He lost nothing in defeat,'' declared Simon Crisford, Sheikh Mohammed's racing manager, and that assessment was right. Sakhee deserves to be considered the Horse of the World.

Most of the recent European stars have had exemplary, consistent campaigns; Fantastic Light has competed in six countries during the past calendar year and has never run a bad race. The last two Horses of the Year in the United States, Tiznow and Charismatic, put together a few good months and won the honor because nobody else sustained excellence over an entire year. And in 2001?

Aptitude could have clinched the Horse of the Year title by winning the Classic but instead gave a dismal performance and finished eighth. Tiznow may win the award again, but he scored only three victories in six starts in an injury-plagued season. Most likely the sport's top honor will go by default to Point Given, whose racing career ended prematurely in August.

Because American racing has had so many disappointments recently, fans had placed high hopes in Officer and so his fifth-place finish has been extensively analyzed and discussed. The inside part of the Belmont racing strip was evidently deep and tiring, giving an edge to horses who make sweeping, wide moves. Those conditions were compounded by a 20-mile-per-hour wind that blew against horses on the backstretch and took a toll on front-runners. Under the circumstances, jockey Victor Espinoza was ill-advised to get Officer involved in a speed duel from the rail. Trainer Bob Baffert said, "He can't be ridden like that. He should have sat behind the pace.''

Espinoza dismissed the effect of any track bias, saying, "If you have much the best horse, it doesn't matter where you are.''

This isn't necessarily true, because good horses who tried to make moves near the rail looked as if they were being swallowed by a black hole. Nevertheless, superhorses are supposed to overcome adversity, and Officer couldn't do it - even though the Juvenile turned out not to be a strong race. Johannesburg, enjoying a perfect trip, ran four-fifths of a second slower than Tempera did in winning the Juvenile Fillies. (The colt's Beyer Speed Figure was an unimpressive 99. Tempera earned a 107.)

Under the conditions at Belmont, one horse did run a distinguished race in the face of adversity: the Maryland-based 3-year-old filly Xtra Heat. She appeared to be in an impossible position, breaking from post position No. 1 in the Sprint against a field of top-quality older males, including the blazingly fast Caller One. Although she was on the worst part of the track, Xtra Heat outran Caller One and everybody else, leading to midstretch before Squirtle Squirt overhauled her.

Her second-place finish was a commendable effort. Over two seasons, the indefatigable filly has never ducked a challenge and amassed 17 wins and 3 seconds in 21 starts. She possesses the toughness and durability that used to be the hallmarks of the American Thoroughbred, but are now so rare.

(c) 2001, The Washington Post