03/24/2005 12:00AM

Shamardal has no margin for error

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Saeed bin Suroor trains Shamardal, whose Kentucky Derby prospects hinge on his performance in the UAE Derby, his first race on dirt.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - The $2 million UAE Derby at Nad Al Sheba racecourse on Saturday is a one-shot for Shamardal, the European champion 2-year-old male of 2004.

If he wins, Shamardal would likely be sent to the Kentucky Derby, adding an intriguing international contender to the May 7 race. He would represent the best hope of the Maktoum family's Godolphin Racing to win America's biggest race.

A loss in the UAE Derby, which would be the first of Shamardal's career, would put him on course for a return to England and turf racing.

The UAE Derby is one of worth $15 million to be run Saturday at Nad Al Sheba, topped by the $6 million Dubai World Cup.

The UAE Derby, run over 1 1/8 miles on dirt, will not be an easy race for the front-running Shamardal, who has drawn post 11 in a 12-horse field.

The rest of the field is led by Parole Board, the sharp winner of a prep race here on March 5; Becrux, an Italian stakes winners whose American co-owners have Kentucky Derby hopes; and the American-trained Durban Thunder and Marenostrum.

Shamardal is a strong favorite with English bookmakers. He has not started since scoring a comfortable win in the Group 1 Dewhurst Stakes over seven furlongs at Newmarket, England, last October. He was trained in his first three races by Mark Johnston and makes his first start for Saeed bin Suroor on Saturday. The UAE Derby marks his first race on dirt, a concern for Godolphin.

"We have to see him run on it before we can make any firm plans," said racing manager Simon Crisford.

Half of the field are 3-year-olds bred in the Southern Hemisphere, making them several months older than the Northern Hemisphere 3-year-olds. Durban Thunder and Marenostrum won Group 1 races in Brazil last year.

Marenostrum, trained by Bobby Frankel, finished third in an allowance race at Santa Anita on March 5 in his U.S. debut.

Durban Thunder, trained by Kenneth McPeek, was trained at Palm Meadows in Florida until mid-February. He was entered for a stakes here on March 5, but missed the race after developing a fever.

"It was a 12-hour spike in temperature," McPeek said. "We felt like if we had run, we would have risked this race."

Sheema Classic: Prince Arch in tough

There are American-trained runners in each of the stakes Saturday.

Prince Arch, the winner of the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap on March 6, is the lone American starter in the $2 million Sheema Classic over about 1 1/2 miles on turf.

Trained by McPeek, who finished second in the 2004 Sheema Classic with Hard Buck, Prince Arch faces a very deep field in an excellent betting race.

The leading contenders in a race where all 11 entrants are stakes winners include Cherry Mix, the runner-up in the 2004 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe; Greys Inn, the winner of the 2004 South African Derby; Phoenix Reach, who won the $1.8 million Hong Kong Vase in December; and Powerscourt, who finished third in the 2004 Breeders' Cup Turf.

McPeek is hoping a slow pace will develop and help Prince Arch.

"Since so many of the European races have a slow pace, we could be right on the front," McPeek said. "I think at a mile and a half he'll be pretty formidable. That last race was a prep for this."

Godolphin Mile: Tsigane a longshot

The American-trained Tsigane, a minor stakes winner at Santa Anita last year, is considered an outsider in the $1 million Godolphin Mile on dirt.

Trained by Julio Canani, Tsigane drew the rail in a field of 12. The race marks his first start since a seventh in the Grade 1 Citation Handicap at Hollywood Park in November.

Michael de Kock, who trains Sheema Classic contender Greys Inn, has the leading hope in Grand Emporium, a stakes winner here and in South Africa in the last year.

Martillo, a troubled sixth in the Hong Kong Mile last December, will try to transfer his turf form to dirt.

Duty Free: Much talent facing Whilly

Whilly, who won the Grade 2 San Marcos at Santa Anita on Jan. 22, will try for his third consecutive win when he runs in the $2 million Dubai Duty Free over about 1 1/8 miles on turf.

But a victory by Whilly would be considered an upset in a field led by Alexander Goldrun, the 4-year-old filly who won two Group 1 races last fall - the Prix de l'Opera in France and the Hong Kong Cup.

Defending champion Right Approach and the Australian champion Elvstroem add further depth to a truly international field.

* Wagering on all six races of the World Cup program is available through the Churchill Downs Simulcast Network; check your local outlet for availability.

* The wagering menu for the World Cup program includes win, European-style place (pays off for first, second, or third), exacta, trifecta, and superfecta - except for the the Goldolphin Mile and UAE Derby, which have all wagers except superfecta. Takeout: win and place, 18 percent; exacta, trifecta, and superfecta, 25 percent.