02/11/2005 12:00AM

Shamardal not the last word in 3-year-olds

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While the unbeaten and unheaded Shamardal rules the European 3-year-old roost from his winter outpost in Dubai, there are a significant number of French and Irish 3-year-olds who should make an impact on the classic season this spring.

The Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere holds the key to understanding last year's European juvenile form. In that seven-furlong Group 1 affair, run on Oct. 3 at Longchamp, the Aidan O'Brien-trained Oratorio came again along the rail under the much-maligned Jamie Spencer to beat Early March, trained by Criquette Head-Maarek, by a short neck. A son of Danehill, Oratorio had previously won the Group 3 Anglesey Stakes and the Group 2 Futurity Stakes at The Curragh. He would prove the value of the Jean-Luc Lagardere two weeks later when finishing 2 1/2 lengths second to Shamardal in the Dewhurst Stakes.

That left Oratorio as the second-best non-British-trained juvenile colt on the 2004 World Thoroughbred Racehorse Rankings, and a key contender for the European 2000 Guineas. The spring season of Early March, a Khalid Abdullah-owned son of the Danehill sire Dansili, will be focused on the Poule d'Essai des Poulains, or French 2000 Guineas. Early March ranked just one pound behind Oratorio on the world rankings, on the same mark as Layman, the Andre Fabre-trained Group 3 winner who was a close third in the Jean-Luc Lagardere.

Early March had taken the Group 3 Prix La Rochette prior to the Jean-Luc Lagardere, but he would not fare as well in his season finale. He was sixth on unsuitably soft ground in the Criterium International, a Group 1 mile at Saint-Cloud, the first three runnings of which had been taken by Act One, Dalakhani, and Bago.

It was Helios Quercus who would add his name to that illustrious list, at the same time giving owner Thierry Maudet, trainer Cyriaque Diard, and jockey Alexandre Roussel their first Group 1 triumph. A French-bred colt by the unheralded Diableneyev, Helios Quercus is one who should benefit by the reduction in distance of the French Derby from 1 1/2 miles to 1 5/16 miles.

Peter Schiergen, that rare flat-race jockey to become a successful trainer, worked his magic with Manduro last autumn. After winning a Munich maiden by six lengths in September, the Monsun colt annihilated 10 rivals in the Group 3 Preis des Winterfavoriten at one mile, beating Kahn by five handy lengths. Manduro rates higher than any German-trained juvenile in recent years, and while the German Derby will be his prime early-season objective, he could be good enough to challenge the British, Irish, and French later in the year.

There are a couple of relatively untested French colts to watch for this year. Firejack, a Dixieland Band half-brother to Dare and Go, won a seven-furlong maiden on Oct. 29 around the tight left-handed turn at Maisons-Laffitte from an impossibly wide draw of 16. Hurricane Run, a Fabre-trained son of Montjeu, took a 1 1/8-mile maiden at Longchamp on Oct. 21 by a widening 2 1/2 lengths. Out of a mare by Surumu, Hurricane Run is probably one who would have preferred a French Derby at the traditional distance of 1 1/2 miles.

While Shamardal is the foreign Triple Crown nominee everyone is keeping his eyes on, one should not overlook the merits of Rebuttal. This is the Mr. Greeley colt whose trainer, Brian Meehan, was keen on sending him to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but whose American owner, Peter Minikes, balked at the idea. A sharp second behind the O'Brien-trained Ad Valorem when going six furlongs in the Group 1 Middle Park Stakes at Newmarket on Oct. 1, Rebuttal received the same 122-pound world ranking as Ad Valorem, one pound behind Shamardal.

Trainer Dermot Weld, who is always giving the Belmont Stakes a peek, has nominated a pair of colts this year.

Merger, like Rebuttal a son of Mr. Greeley, is out of a mare by the stamina influence El Gran Senor. A five-length maiden winner in his debut, Merger raced greenly when a half-length runner-up to Albert Hall in the one-mile Group 2 Beresford Stakes on Oct. 10 at The Curragh, and appears to be one with plenty of room for improvement.

Weld has also nominated Gaff, a Maria's Mon colt who had started his career with trainer Steve Asmussen and finished a dull seventh in his lone try on dirt, a 4 1/2-furlong maiden at Keeneland in April.

Switched to Weld by owners Ludolph Heiligbrodt and Michael Smurfit, Gaff showed marked improvement next time, landing the listed El Gran Senor Stakes going seven furlongs at Fairyhouse on Sept. 29. He then earned a high figure despite racing greenly when second to Footstepsinthesand in the seven-furlong Group 3 Killavullan Stakes at Leopardstown four weeks later.

Dermot Weld is arguably better than any trainer in the world at shipping horses across oceans to win big races. If either of these two show up at Belmont Park on June 11, it will be with a purpose.