06/11/2002 11:00PM

Sarava took long road to glory


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Last Saturday night, at around 11:10 (GMT), Brian Meehan was watching the Belmont Stakes from the comfort of his home in Old Lambourn, east of London, where he trains about a hundred horses at his Newlands Stables.

When Sarava hit the wire a half-length to the good of Medaglia d'Oro, leaving War Emblem in the dust, Meehan jumped for joy. His heart filled with the pride of close association. Then he made a series of mental notes, among them the very modern notion that occurs to only the most contemporary trainers:

"We've got to update the web site," said a worried Meehan after the Belmont was in the books. "Our connection to make changes has been down for the last three days, otherwise we'd have been putting Sarava all over it."

An Internet visit to "brianmeehan-racing.co.uk" reveals, in cyber-terms, the 2-year-old home of the 2002 Belmont winner. It was a long way from the backstretch of Churchill Downs.

Sarava, the lucky mug, was basically in summer camp most of last year. Private training yard. Country air. Trees, grass, and healthy exercise on the nearby Mandown gallops. Everything but singing around a campfire.

Unfortunately, Sarava flunked out when it came to handicrafts. Three English starts at three different English tracks, three losses, and never in the top three. One of the colts that beat him, Dupont, went on to win classics in Italy and Germany. Other than that, Sarava's record was bleak.

"He was a lovely colt, always a nice horse," Meehan said Monday evening while on his way to saddle a horse at Windsor. "He basically just didn't handle the turf. Still, he was a 2-year-old at the time, so you never know."

No question. Even War Emblem was a work in progress for most of his 2-year-old season. Nothing he did led anyone to believe in the things that were to come. Sarava could have been a shy boy just waiting to bloom. But he was also a considerable investment. Pride can be expensive.

"It's not rocket science," Meehan noted. "It just takes common sense. And the common sensical thing to do was for the horse to be re-imported to the U.S. to continue his career."

So he was. While new partners entered the scene alongside owners Paul and Susan Roy, Burk Kessinger picked up where Meehan left off. Kessinger trained Sarava through the winter before turning him over to Ken McPeek.

The tale is not unusual. Today's Thoroughbred is a true citizen of the world, more mobile than an Airstream. They are moved from farm to farm, ring to ring, and barn to barn as if they were dry goods in bulk. It is a testimony to the resilience of the breed that a racehorse can be touched by so many hands in so many ways and still have the class to perform on cue.

Racing fans have become familiar with War Emblem's journey from his Kentucky birthplace, to sales ring buy-back, to a training center in South Carolina, and then on to the stables of Bobby Springer and Bob Baffert.

Sarava has a few more stickers on his suitcase. He was foaled in Kentucky, sold in Maryland, and sold again in Florida before his trip to England. It was Meehan and Newmarket bloodstock agent Richard Galpern who plucked Sarava out of the Calder 2-year-old sale for $250,000.

"We were very taken with him," Meehan said. "I'd pay the same price for him again."

In terms of pedigree, Meehan was certainly rolling the dice. Sarava's sire lines - Wild Again and Deputy Minister - scream dirt. But sometimes a horse forgets to read his family tree.

"We've done that before, brought dirt horses back here," Meehan said. "We've got a very nice one now called Freefourinternet, bred dirt to his eyeballs. He's won two stakes for us and goes next in the Prince of Wales at Royal Ascot. He's taken to the grass, but he just can't handle any cut in the ground."

At the age of 34, Meehan has been training on his own for nine years. He was raised in Limerick, Ireland, and worked at Ireland's National Stud before signing on with the well-known English trainer, Richard Hannon. The stable produced British champion sprinter Mr. Brooks, who was killed in the 1992 Breeders' Cup Sprint in New York.

Lately, the name of Meehan is beginning to crop up more often in the past performance lines of American runners. Sarava is the loudest, but not the only Meehan horse making noise in the States. Doc Holiday, Gateman, and Freefourracing - "former inmates," Meehan said with a laugh - all have won stakes in the U.S.

Sarava was among 70 2-year-olds under Meehan's care last year.

Despite his racing failures, he was always rated "among the top 10," as far as Meehan was concerned. The potential he showed in the English countryside has been realized.

"Give full credit to Ken McPeek for that," Meehan said.

Fair enough. But also give credit to the people who handled Sarava along the way. There are always plenty of chances to squander the talents of a fine young racehorse, but only a few ways to get it right.