03/29/2005 1:00AM

Sheikh must change or fail

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Horsephotos
Blues and Royals, owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, earned a superb 110 Beyer for his win in the UAE Derby.

WASHINGTON - Since the beginning of the year, racing fans have been waiting for at least one 3-year-old racehorse to deliver a performance worthy of a future Kentucky Derby winner. Until Saturday, none had done so.

Instead, the big names have taken turns discrediting themselves. Wilko, the winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, finished a badly beaten fourth in his 3-year-debut. Declan's Moon, the Eclipse Award winner, was sidelined by a fracture in his knee. Afleet Alex inherited the top spot in Daily Racing Form's ranking of Derby contenders and promptly finished last in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

But last Saturday, a previously unheralded colt named Blues and Royals ran a race that appeared to establish him as the star of the 3-year-old crop. Even so, his chances of earning a blanket of roses on May 7 are negligible, for he is likely to be doomed by the arrogance and poor judgment of his owner.

Blues and Royals is a member of the vast racing stable operated by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum of Dubai. The horse failed to distinguish himself in three starts on the grass in England last year, and nobody regarded him as a contender when he was entered in the United Arab Emirates Derby, one of the races on the Nad Al Sheba racetrack program that included the $6 million Dubai World Cup.

All the attention was focused on another of Sheikh Mohammed's colts, the undefeated Shamardal, who was hailed as Europe's best 2-year-old last season. As Shamardal dueled for the lead in a fast pace, Blues and Royals sat behind the leaders. He squeezed inside them on the turn, and then ran away from the field in the long stretch, winning by 12 lengths.

The victory was visually impressive, but such efforts are often deceptive if the winner is routing a poor field. Was this race as good as it looked? I believe it was.

Since November, I have been calculating speed figures for Nad Al Sheba, and I am reasonably confident in their accuracy. Blues and Royals earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 110- a performance better than any by an American 3-year-old and one that would be good enough to win the Kentucky Derby in a normal year.

Despite Blues and Royals's previous lackluster record, this was probably no fluke. He has a pure American, dirt-oriented pedigree; the progeny of his sire, Honour and Glory, have a subpar record in turf races. Blues and Royals was miscast running on grass as a 2-year-old. When he went to Dubai this winter, trainer Saeed bin Suroor said, "He looked like he handled the dirt very well," prompting his entry in the UAE Derby. After the victory confirmed that Blues and Royals is an exceptional runner on dirt, the sheikh's racing manager, Simon Crisford, announced that the colt would make his next start May 7 at Churchill Downs.

Winning the Derby has become Sheikhh Mohammed's obsession in recent years. He has been the dominant force in world racing since the 1980's, and has won every race worth winning in England and France. Looking for a new world to conquer, he ran a horse in the Kentucky Derby for the first time in 1999. He lost, but declared, "We'll be back. Within the next four years, we'll win it."

It seemed a reasonable prediction, because the sheikh not only breeds hundreds of horses every year but has the limitless bankroll to buy almost any established Derby contender that he covets. Yet he hasn't come close to winning at Churchill Downs; most of his entrants have been trounced. The reason is evident to everybody except the sheikh and the yes-men around him: His method of preparation doesn't work in the Derby.

Sheikh Mohammed annually brings some of his best prospects to Dubai for the winter, prepares them there, and dispatches them to Europe and America to compete under the name of his Godolphin stable. Horses from Dubai have had great success in England; in 1995 Lammtarra amazed the racing world by winning the 1 1/2-mile Epsom Derby in his first start as a 3-year-old.

The sheikh tried to duplicate this feat in 1999 when he sent Worldly Manner to Churchill Downs for his first start at 3. He fought for the lead, tired, and finished seventh. The next year, the sheikh's China Rule made his third career start in the Derby. He finished sixth. In 2001, Express Tour ran brilliantly to win the UAE Derby in his lone prep race as a 3-year-old. At Churchill Downs he tired and finished eighth.

One might think that the sheikh and his legion of high-paid advisers could consult the Kentucky Derby record books and observe these facts:

* Since 1937, 20 horses have raced in the Derby with a single prep race at 3, and all have failed.

* Of horses with two prep races, only one has succeeded since 1948.

The lesson is obvious: Horses need sufficient seasoning to win the Derby.

Sheikh Mohammed and his circle presumably assume that the methods that have succeeded for them in Europe ought to work in America as well. The flaw in their reasoning is that racing on the turf is fundamentally different from racing on dirt. Competing on turf is much less stressful; horses typically lope along in the early stages and accelerate in the final furlongs. But dirt races are hard-fought from start to finish, and horses need to be much fitter to win them - particularly a rough-and-tumble event like the Kentucky Derby.

Blues and Royals might have a remote chance at Churchill Downs if the sheikh sent him to the U.S. for a second prep race, such as the Lexington Stakes on April 23 at Keeneland in Kentucky. But if the sheikh clings stubbornly to his discredited methods and sends Blues and Royals to the Derby with only one start as a 3-year-old, he can't win - even if the colt is the best dirt runner of his generation.

© 2005 The Washington Post