11/10/2008 1:00AM

Seems a lot like old times


NEW YORK - The calendar confirms that this is indeed the fall of 2008. But when it comes to Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin Racing and its desire to win the Kentucky Derby, it sure does feel like the fall of 1998.

Ten years ago, Godolphin purchased two of the best 2-year-old colts in training in the United States and brought them back to Dubai, where they were prepared for an assault on the 1999 Kentucky Derby.

Sound familiar? It should. This past August, Sheikh Mohammed purchased the equine holdings of Robert McNair's Stonerside, and included in that package was Midshipman. Early this month, Sheikh Mohammed purchased Vineyard Haven from owner/trainer Bobby Frankel. Both will be sent to Dubai, where they will prepare for a go at the 2009 Kentucky Derby.

By any measure, Midshipman and Vineyard Haven are the two most accomplished 2-year-old males in this country this year. Midshipman, who won the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity over the summer, probably clinched a divisional Eclipse Award when he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The only serious challenger to Midshipman for the championship is Vineyard Haven, whose victories in the Champagne and Hopeful also makes him a two-time Grade 1 winner.

Ten years ago, the names were Worldly Manner and Comeonmom. Worldly Manner won 3 of his first 4 starts before Godolphin acquired him, including five-length romps in the Del Mar Futurity and Best Pal. Comeonmom was acquired after his strong, if surprising, win in the Remsen.

Comeonmom, it turned out, never made it to the Derby. He returned from Dubai and ran in the Peter Pan, ostensibly with an eye toward a start in the Belmont Stakes, but finished a distant last of nine. According to the Daily Racing Form database, Comeonmom made only four more starts, all in early 2000 in Dubai, all of which he lost.

But Worldly Manner did make it to the 1999 Kentucky Derby. He was Godolphin's first Derby starter, and he arguably performed better than the four Godolphin Derby starters who followed him. Worldly Manner closely tracked the early pace, took a narrow lead turning for home, and faded only in the final furlong to finish seventh, beaten just four lengths.

Many came away from that Derby awarding Worldly Manner a moral victory, because there was a strong sense he could have won if he wasn't such a dead-short horse. In any event, that was Worldly Manner's last "victory," moral or otherwise. He was badly beaten in the Preakness, and he lost all four of his starts the following year. In one of them, Worldly Manner suffered the ignominy of being the rabbit for Dubai Millennium in the Dubai World Cup.

Despite the parallels with this year's 2-year-olds, there are a few noteworthy differences this time.

Although Worldly Manner and Comeonmom were every bit as good at 2 as Answer Lively, who won the divisional championship in 1998 on the basis of his desperate win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, they still weren't as serious Eclipse Award candidates as Midshipman and Vineyard Haven are. Midshipman and Vineyard Haven are in position to benefit from the lessons learned from Godolphin's prior Kentucky Derby trailblazers. And, they have the benefit of prepping in a real race in Dubai, the UAE Derby, unlike Worldly Manner, who came along a year before there was a UAE Derby and prepped for the Kentucky Derby in an unofficial exhibition race. Whether or not you feel Sheikh Mohammed is being too stubborn in wanting to win the Kentucky Derby his way, with a colt prepped in Dubai, those differences should benefit Midshipman and Vineyard Haven.

So, too, should the crumbling in recent years of many longstanding Derby "rules." Barbaro became the first in 50 years to win the Derby off a layoff of five or more weeks; Street Sense became the first in 24 years to win the Derby off of just two preps at 3 and the first Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner to win the Derby; and Big Brown became the first in 93 years to win the Derby off of only three career starts, and the first in 79 years to win from post 20. That last point alone suggests that it might not be as impossible as it once seemed for a colt to win the Derby after prepping in Dubai.

The big question, then, is: Are Midshipman and Vineyard Haven really any good? Just because they figure one-two in divisional Eclipse Award voting, the forgettable Answer Lively is proof that they still don't have to be much of anything. And at this point, it is very tempting to take the skeptical position.

Midshipman, who along with cinch 2-year-old filly champ Stardom Bound would become the first all synthetic-track-raced Eclipse Award winner, matched his career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 91 in the Breeders' Cup. That, unfortunately for him, is the second-lowest winning Beyer ever in the Juvenile, which is appropriate considering the field he beat in the Breeders' Cup seemed below average.

As for Vineyard Haven, a strong case can be made that even though he won the Hopeful by daylight, he might have been only third-best in that race. considering how badly the runner-up, Cribnote, bolted, and the bad start suffered by the third-place finisher, Munnings. Vineyard Haven's victory in the Champagne, on the other hand, is difficult to take issue with. It was a legitimately strong performance - the best by a 2-year-old in a meaningful situation this year. It should be noted, however, that the Champagne runner-up, Munnings, came back with a dreadful effort in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.