10/28/2005 12:00AM

Tough road for foreigners in Classic

Owner Paul Makin will try to win the Breeders' Cup Classic with Starcraft in the horse's dirt debut. Starcraft, shown jogging on trainer Allen Jerkens's shed row, won Group 1 grass races in Australia, New Zealand, France, and England.

ELMONT, N.Y. - They have come from France and England, Ireland and Japan, 27 in all, overseas raiders seeking to step right off the plane and make off with the grandest prize for older horses in the United States, the Breeders' Cup Classic. One has succeeded, several have come close, but most have failed, some miserably.

As famous as Arcangues became for his 133-1 stunner in the 1993 Classic at Santa Anita, there have been a litany of well-regarded overseas runners who have found the transition from turf to dirt, from distant shores to America, sometimes from right-handed courses to left-handed courses, far too daunting. Only five have finished in the money, including Giant's Causeway and Sakhee, and five have finished absolutely last, including Halling, who was the third choice of 11 runners in 1995 at Belmont Park.

Three new faces are set to make that leap on Saturday, in the $4 million Classic at Belmont Park. But one in particular, Starcraft, will be the first Classic runner to begin his career in Australia, win Group 1 races there and in New Zealand, then win Group 1 races in France and Great Britain before making his first-ever start on dirt in the Classic.

It's an audacious plan. Just the kind Paul Makin likes.

Starcraft, Australia's champion 3-year-old of 2004, is here because Makin, his owner, loves a challenge. Based on his victories in Group 1 mile races in Europe this year, Starcraft would have been one of the favorites in the Breeders' Cup Mile.

But "Paul was of the opinion that winning the Mile wouldn't prove a thing," said Luca Cumani, who trains Starcraft. "To win the Classic, he thought that would be wild."

So here he is, along with Oratorio, from the stable of Irish kingpin Aidan O'Brien, and the longshot Jack Sullivan. Of the three, only Jack Sullivan has ever raced on a dirt or all-weather surface. Both Oratorio and Starcraft have raced exclusively on turf.

For Oratorio, the decision to run in the Classic seems a matter more of distance than surface. Oratorio found 1 1/2 miles too far in the Epsom Derby, so the Breeders' Cup Turf is a stretch for him, and the Breeders' Cup Mile is too abrupt. The 1 1/4 miles of the Classic is just right, considering he has won two Group 1 races at that distance this year.

"Obviously we're hoping he runs a good race," O'Brien said. "He's a tough, solid horse who gets a mile and a quarter really well. We're just hoping he adapts to the dirt."

Cumani has tried as best he can to approximate American racing conditions for Starcraft.

"We haven't got dirt, so the only thing we can do to try and prepare him is to go Southwell, which has a fibresand all-weather surface," Cumani said in a recent interview from Newmarket, England. "Polytrack" - the surface at Lingfield - "rides like turf, which would not teach him anything. The fibresand is a bit deeper, a bit looser. It has more kickback. It's not dirt, but it's the nearest thing we've got to it."

That exacting preparation is something American racing fans saw from Cumani in 1994, when he won Mile with Barathea after training him in England to negotiate left-handed turns before shipping to Churchill Downs. Cumani, an Italian who now trains in England, upset John Henry in the 1983 Arlington Million with Tolomeo and very nearly won the 2003 Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita with the well-traveled Falbrav. That led to Cumani's training Starcraft.

"Paul wanted to have Starcraft race in the Northern Hemisphere," Cumani said. "When he rang me, we had never met before. He had followed Falbrav, and he thought I might be the right man for the job."

Starcraft won 9 of 17 starts in Australia and New Zealand before heading to Cumani in February.

"He came from the Australian summer to a very deep, cold winter," Cumani said. "He probably thought his owner had sent him to Siberia for punishment. He had a shiny summer coat, and then grew a winter coat, but it was late to be growing a winter coat. He didn't acclimate. We gave him plenty of time."

Starcraft finished third in his first start of the year, in the Queen Anne Stakes at the Royal Ascot meeting at York in June. The winner was Valixir, who is running in the Breeders' Cup Mile. "We knew he'd improve off that run," Cumani said.

The next race, however, was a disaster. Starcraft finished sixth of seven in the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown in July.

"He lost his cool in the parade," Cumani said. "In the paddock, he was very edgy. When the jockey was put up, he started sweating. He ran down to the post pulling hard and dripping sweat. He ran his race before the race."

After two months off, Starcraft returned with a pair of sharp victories in prestigious one-mile races in France and England.

"We worked on his behavior," Cumani said. "He had lots of paddock schooling. At Newmarket in July and August, there's racing every weekend, so there were plenty of opportunities."

The last bit of preparation for the Classic involved the jockey. Cumani and Makin chose Patrick Valenzuela.

"We wanted a top-class American jockey who is used to riding on dirt," Cumani said. "If the race was on turf, we'd have used a European jockey, but we wanted an experienced dirt rider."