02/24/2003 1:00AM

Trek to Dubai a trip to oblivion


NEW YORK - Most of us will never be in a position to go after the winner's share of a $6 million purse, so we can only imagine what it must feel like. But it doesn't take a stretch of the imagination to think that so much money leads rational people to make choices they may not make otherwise.

This comes to mind in the wake of Harlan's Holiday's impressive victory in Saturday's Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park. The $6 million Dubai World Cup on March 29 remains a strong possibility for the colt's next start.

Forget for a moment about the prospects of war in the Middle East. There is a more basic question here: Why would the owner and trainer of a very good horse consider going to the Dubai World Cup when the horse will likely come home a shell of his former self?

Is it the $3.6 million that goes to the winner of the Dubai World Cup? If it is, it's not nearly enough. That essentially was the conclusion of a column I wrote in June of 2001 that examined the racing records of United States-based horses after they had competed in the Dubai World Cup, and everything that has happened since has only strengthened that conclusion.

In the first seven years of the Dubai World Cup, from 1996 through 2002, United States-based horses made a total of 18 starts. Silver Charm and Behrens each made two trips to Dubai. Of course, not all of these U.S. horses were of equal ability, but of them, only three raced at a genuinely high level immediately upon resuming action in the United States. Cigar was first. After he won the inaugural Dubai Cup, he returned home and won the Massachusetts Handicap and Citation Challenge, although after the Citation Challenge Cigar lost three of his final four starts. Next was Formal Gold, who after finishing fifth in the 1997 Dubai Cup came back to miss by a head to Skip Away in the Mass Cap, and then won the Brooklyn, Iselin, and Woodward. The third was Victory Gallop, who after finishing third in the 1999 Dubai Cup returned to win the Foster and Whitney handicaps. Notably, the Whitney proved to be the last race of his career.

Two horses, Silver Charm and Aptitude, had success at a high level back in this country, but it didn't come immediately after their Dubai Cup races. After he won the 1998 Dubai Cup in the first of his two trips, Silver Charm finished second in the Foster and was badly beaten in the San Diego Handicap. Later that year, however, he finished in a dead heat for first in the Kentucky Cup Classic, won the Goodwood and Clark handicaps, and was a close second in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Aptitude was a soundly beaten fifth in the Californian in his first start after finishing sixth in the 2001 Dubai Cup. But, he then was placed first in the Hollywood Gold Cup and won the Saratoga Breeders' Cup and the Jockey Club Gold Cup before finishing eighth as the favorite in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Street Cry, winner of last year's Dubai Cup, won the Foster in his first start back in this country. But, he does not qualify as a U.S.-based horse because he was already based in Dubai. And, Street Cry never ran again after finishing second in the Whitney Handicap in his start following the Foster.

Of the 16 U.S.-based horses who ran in the Dubai Cup, only three won their next start. Cigar and Victory Gallop did, and the other was Ecton Park. After Ecton Park finished fifth in 2000, he returned and won over a weak field in the Schaefer Handicap at Pimlico, and then went 0 for 4 the rest of that season.

On the other hand, of the 16 U.S.-based horses who ran in the Dubai Cup, 11 had poor records afterward, if they managed to race at all.

Soul of the Matter never raced again after finishing second to Cigar in 1996. Siphon and Sandpit finished second and third in 1997, and went on to go 0 for 3 and 0 for 5, respectively, after the Dubai Cup that year. Malek, who finished fourth to Silver Charm in 1998, didn't race again that year; while Behrens, who finished fifth to Silver Charm in the first of his two Dubai Cup appearances, returned with an awful performance in the Brooklyn and didn't race the rest of 1998.

After his sixth-place finish in the 1999 Dubai Cup, Silver Charm turned in a dreadful performance in the Foster and was retired the next day. Behrens, who returned to Dubai in 2000 and finished second, went winless in four subsequent starts that year. Puerto Madero, who finished fourth in 2000, lost his next two races, while neither Public Purse, who finished third, nor Saint's Honor, who was 10th, raced again.

Following his victory in the 2001 Dubai Cup, Captain Steve ended his career with four straight losses in the U.S., three as the favorite, twice at odds-on. And Western Pride hasn't been heard from since his dismal effort in last year's renewal.

So, if Harlan's Holiday goes to Dubai next month, remember him fondly for how good he was in the Donn, and root for him at Nad Al Sheba, because odds are he won't be the Harlan's Holiday we knew when he gets back home.