08/25/2005 11:00PM

Some misguided trainers wind up playing to horses' weakness


NEW YORK - "We are doing what's best for the horse" is a refrain that trips off the tongues of owners and trainers as easily as Triple Crown performers fall by the wayside. The horse's interests must always come first, we are led to believe, but you don't have to be from Missouri to take such sentiments with a grain of salt.

Recent trends suggest that some first-class racehorses are being asked to do things out of their range with the prime intention of increasing their value at stud. On the face of it, that might not sound like a bad idea, but in reality, running horses at distances over which they are not bred to run can be counterproductive in the long term.

A case in point is Doyen. Owned by Godolphin, an outfit that is usually as good as its word on matters of doing what is best for its horses, Doyen proved himself to be the best 12-furlong horse in the world last summer after a record-setting victory in the Hardwicke Stakes, followed by an impressive score in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes.

His King George triumph marked the eighth time in succession that Doyen had run at 1 1/2 miles. Yet Godolphin dropped him back to 1 1/4 miles for his next two starts, only to see him finish seventh in both the Irish Champion and the Champion stakes. Doyen has never been the same since. Unplaced when stepped back up to 1 1/2 miles for his first two starts this year, he was dropped back to 1 5/16 miles for the Juddmonte International Stakes last time and finished a dull sixth. He is now a candidate for retirement.

Motivator may be a new Doyen in the making. By French Derby, Irish Derby, and Arc winner Montjeu out of a mare by staying influence Top Ville, Motivator established himself as the best 12-furlong horse of his generation when he won the Epsom Derby by five lengths. He was then dropped back to 1 1/4 miles to face older horses for the first time in the Eclipse Stakes. When Shamardal was withdrawn because of a career-ending injury, the Eclipse looked like easy pickings for Motivator. Bred as he is, however, to get 1 1/2 miles, Sandown's 10 furlongs proved too short for him and he was caught late by Oratorio. Trainer Michael Bell and his 230 owners at the Royal Ascot Racing Club may be compounding their error by sending him next in what looks like a very difficult Irish Champion Stakes, which at 1 1/4 miles has already proven to be below his preferred distance.

After Divine Proportions had won the 1 5/16-mile Prix de Diane, or French Oaks, on June 12, her trainer, Pascal Bary, and the Niarchos family's racing manager, Alan Cooper, speculated that this daughter of Kingmambo, who is out of a mare by Sadler's Wells, might go for the 1 1/2-mile Prix Vermeille. That Divine Proportions can stay farther than 1 1/4 miles was proven in the Diane. That Kingmambos can stay at least 12 furlongs, especially when helped along by stoutish female families, has been illustrated by Lemon Drop Kid in the Belmont Stakes, El Condor Pasa in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, King Kamehameha in the Japanese Derby, and Rule of Law in the St. Leger. Cooper, however, expressed a disinclination to place Divine Proportions in the same division as Bago, the Niarchos family's Arc winner who is seeking a repeat victory in the great French 1 1/2-mile test.

Thus, it was decided to drop Divine Proportions back to a mile, and while that was certainly a distance she can handle, normal procedure calls for a classic winner at 1 5/16 miles to continue racing at 1 1/4 miles or thereabouts, or step up to 1 1/2 miles.

Now Divine Proportions has been retired by a tendon injury she may have suffered while facing older colts for the first time in the one-mile Prix Jacques le Marois two weeks ago. Was it in her best interests to avoid a possible match with a stablemate in the Arc by being sent back to run at a mile, or would it have been better to keep her at the longer distances for which she seemed to be crying out?

These are all examples of running horses at shorter than their best. In America we are plagued by the opposite problem, i.e., running horses at distances beyond their natural ability.

It comes with the turf here, where we breed Thoroughbreds for speed, yet expect them to stay at between 1 3/16 miles and 1 1/2 miles to earn classic laurels. The roadblocks run into by Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex before their 3-year-old seasons were even half over can be laid in no small part to their having run consistently at distances beyond what their parentage had dictated. Enduring the knocks inflicted by racing on dirt tracks doesn't help today's spindly-legged American Thoroughbreds either, but every time a trainer oversees the injection of race-day Lasix or Butazolidin into one of his horses, he is hardly doing what is best for the animal.

So the next time you hear a trainer say he is doing what is best for his horse, tell him your name is Thomas. As in Doubting.