06/07/2007 11:00PM

Staying power now a foreign notion

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NEW YORK - Who says that horses bred in Kentucky can't stay a mile and a half?

With Light Shift and Peeping Fawn, Kentucky-breds both, finishing one-two in last Friday's English Oaks, a day before the Kentucky-bred Legerete won the Group 3 Prix de Royaumont at Chantilly, there should be nationwide rejoicing over the fact that the Bluegrass State can breed fillies capable of getting 1 1/2 miles at the highest level. A closer look, however, reveals that these three fillies are far from their old Kentucky home.

By Kingmambo out of a Shirley Heights mare, Light Shift was bred by the Niarchos family, who have horses in training in both England and France. Before the ink was dry on the mating contract, she was bound for Europe. So too Legerete, a Rahy filly out of Seattle Slew mare who is a homebred product of the French-based Wertheimer brothers.

Peeping Fawn, bred in Kentucky by Barnett Enterprises, might have remained in America but was purchased privately by Michael Tabor and whisked away to Ireland to be trained by Aidan O'Brien.

That's the problem facing the decreasing number of foals bred in the United States with the potential to stay at least 1 1/4 miles. If they are not already controlled by foreign connections at mating time, foreign owners soon snap up most of the rest.

And why not? As the number of races run at 10 furlongs or farther on both turf and dirt continues to decline, American owners have little interest in bloodlines that include names like Sadler's Wells, Shirley Heights, Darshaan, Montjeu, or Galileo.

This year's Belmont Stakes highlights the problem. The defection of Street Sense is understandable from a season-long point of view. But for a mere head in the Preakness, however, is there any doubt the Kentucky Derby winner would have been in the Belmont lineup?

His absence says much about where the once-great Belmont Stakes stands in today's world of sprinters. Had Street Sense won the Preakness, he would have run in the Belmont even if it were two miles long. But when the opportunity for a Triple Crown title disappeared with his loss at Pimlico, the Belmont looked like nothing more than an overlong race that might spoil his chances for big victories at shorter distances later in the year.

Once the prize Triple Crown jewel for breeders and owners with a long-term commitment to Thoroughbred excellence, the Belmont Stakes has become an anachronism. It is pointless to ask horses to go 1 1/2 miles on dirt in early June of their 3-year-old seasons, and then never ask them to do so again.

In an ideal world, we should add a few 12-furlong dirt stakes to the American program, at least for 4-year-olds and up. But in a world in which the average distance of races hovers near the seven-furlong mark (on Wednesday it was 6.94 furlongs at Belmont, 6.81 at Hollywood, 6.85 at Monmouth and 6.5 at Churchill), that is not going to happen.

The conundrum we find ourselves in concerning races of at least 1 1/4 miles was further underlined this week when Sheikh Mohammed bought the first two finishers in the Kentucky Derby, Street Sense and Hard Spun, for eventual stud duty. The weeping and moaning from all corners of the American racing industry has yet to die down. Sheikh Mohammed is being painted in some circles as a thief, one who thinks nothing of robbing us of our racing heritage.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Sheikh Mohammed recognizes that Street Sense and Hard Spun might become future sources of stamina. Possessing the resources to do so, he bought them. More to the point, the owners of the two horses, Jim Tafel and Fox Hill Farms, didn't have to sell. They could have played the same long-term game that Sheikh Mohammed, John Magnier, Khalid Abdullah, the Aga Khan, the Niarchos family, and the Wertheimer brothers have been playing for decades. They could have syndicated the horses themselves and reaped the rewards down the road. Eager for quick cash, Tafel and Fox Hill sold out, like so many other American owners and breeders during the last 30 years.

There was a time when the wealthiest foreign horsemen could not afford the best American bloodstock. It coincided with the time when American horsemen could outbid anyone in the world for the best European bloodstock, a time when we had the patience and acumen to produce horses like Native Dancer, Nashua, Bold Ruler, Northern Dancer, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.

Now, when patience and long-term design no longer reside on these shores, the shoe is on the other foot. Dwell upon that 10 years from now when the sons of Street Sense are lining up for the Epsom Derby and not the Kentucky Derby.