03/18/2010 11:00PM

St Nicholas Abbey's debut leads off


NEW YORK - The eyes of racing fans overseas will be focused on Newmarket on May 1, when the first Group 1 race of the European season is expected to feature the return of St Nicholas Abbey in the 2000 Guineas. The classic mile is one of 85 Group 1 contests scheduled in Europe in 2010, when black-type prize money will be down in Ireland, Germany, and Italy; static in Britain; but up France.

But the quality of the racing should assuage any hurt feelings about faltering purses. And in St Nicholas Abbey, a son of the outstanding stallion Montjeu, Aidan O'Brien and his deep-pocketed allies at Coolmore should provide the perfect antidote to what has been the coldest and snowiest European winter in many years.

Flawless in three juvenile starts, St Nicholas Abbey opened some cynical eyes with a 3 3/4-length victory in the Racing Post Trophy in his final

2-year-old start. So impressive was St Nicholas Abbey that day that every bookie in Britain and Ireland immediately installed him as the short-priced favorite for the Guineas and the Epsom Derby. He is 2-1 with Ladbrokes for both races; William Hill has him 3-1 for the Guineas and 2-1 for the Derby. Nothing else is better than 10-1 for either race.

It appears as if O'Brien will be taking the same early-season path with St Nicholas Abbey that John Oxx took with Sea the Stars last year and go to the classics without a prep race. Expect to see Jan Vermeer, an O'Brien-trained Montjeu colt who won the 1 1/4-mile Criterium de Saint-Cloud, to prep for the Derby in the Ballysax Stakes at Leopardstown on April 18 and/or the Leopardstown Derby Trial on May 8. After that, O'Brien will have the problem of keeping his two best 3-year-olds out of each other's way.

In the 2000 Guineas, St Nicholas Abbey can look for competition from Arcano. A son of Oasis Dream trained by Brian Meehan, Arcano set a Deauville course record for six furlongs when he won the Prix Morny in August in a stakes that had "key race" written all over it. Special Duty, the short neck runner-up in the Morny, went on to win the Cheveley Park Stakes six weeks later, an effort that made her the 7-2 antepost favorite for Newmarket's 1000 Guineas with Hills and Ladbrokes. A Hennessy filly, Special Duty will try to become Criquette Head-Maarek's third Guineas winner after Ravinella in 1988 and Hatoof four years later.

If the ground comes up soft that day, Termagant, winner of the Moyglare Stud Stakes on very soft ground, will have to be dealt with. The Aga Khan's Siyouni and Pounced are the leading early-season candidates for the French 2000 Guineas. They finished first and second in the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere, with Pounced going on to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf on Nov. 7.

Godolphin took control of Hibaayeb after she won the Fillies Mile at Ascot. A Singspiel filly, she is vying for English Oaks favoritism with the Richard Hannon-trained Pollenator, a daughter of Epsom Derby winner Motivator who had beaten Hibaayeb a half-length in the one-mile Group 2 May Hill Stakes three weeks earlier.

On the older horse front, Goldikova will command much attention as she prepares for an unprecedented third Breeders' Cup Mile triumph. Her season will focus on that target, but trainer Freddie Head has said she will start at 1 1/8 miles, 55 yards in the Prix d'Ispahan, a race in which she finished seventh last year on soft ground. The Ispahan will serve as her prep for the one-mile Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot.

Vision d'Etat, perhaps the best

10-furlong horse in Europe last year after Sea the Stars, will start 2010 in the Dubai World Cup. After that race, trainer Eric Libaud has planned an international campaign that could include the Arlington Million and a Breeders' Cup race.

Cavalryman, winner of the Grand Prix de Paris and third in the Arc for Andre Fabre, is with Saeed bin Suroor in Dubai preparing for the Dubai Sheema Classic. On paper, Cavalryman rates as highly as any older horse in Europe, but his seventh-place finish in Round 3 of the Maktoum Challenge suggests he may have fared better if he had remained with Fabre. Gitano Hernando, the Goodwood Stakes winner who will run in the Dubai World Cup, is one to watch on synthetics and dirt, in Dubai, Europe, or America.

While the Irish Champion Stakes, the Irish Derby, and the Irish Guineas have all had their purses slashed, the situation in France is brighter. The French 1000 and 2000 Guineas will be worth 50,000 euros ($68,000) more than in 2009, as will the Prix du Moulin de Longchamp, the Prix Vermeille, and the Prix de l'Opera.

France-Galop is keeping up with the times. French racing's ruling body will close Chantilly for seven months July 16 to install an all-weather track, scheduled to open in early 2011. Eleven late summer/autumn Chantilly meetings have been transferred to four other tracks in the Paris region. And Longchamp will close for 20 months after the Arc on Oct. 6, 2012, to build a new grandstand and paddock and to install an all-weather track.