08/29/2002 11:00PM

Waiting for a 2-year-old leader


With many of Aidan O'Brien's best juveniles shelved because of the virus that has hit Ballydoyle, and with David Loder taking his time with his Maktoum youngsters, putting the European 2-year-old scene into perspective is a problematic undertaking.

At this time last year, Johannesburg was already winging his way to the European and North American juvenile championships with victories in the Norfolk Stakes, Anglesey Stakes, Phoenix Stakes, and Prix Morny.

This season's muddled picture was clarified to a certain degree by the victory last Sunday of Elusive City in the Group 1 Prix Morny, Deauville's defining juvenile contest. But just 24 hours after his heroics in France, Elusive City, trained by Gerard Butler, was in hot water with the British stewards.

The sticking point is a test taken after Elusive City's three-length trouncing of Revenue in the Group 2 Richmond Stakes at Goodwood on July 30. The Jockey Club's lab technicians have discovered the "possibility" of a prohibited substance in the winner's system. They are arranging to send a "B" sample abroad for an additional test. If that one comes back positive, it looks as if Elusive City will be stripped of his Richmond laurels.

This should be of concern to American observers because Butler considers his still undefeated colt as "a possible" for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Feeding speculation that he could line up at Arlington Park Oct. 26 is that he is already a winner on dirt.

Butler took the unusual step of beginning Elusive City's career in a six-furlong maiden race on the all-weather track at Lingfield Park where he won by three lengths. "The Equitrack surface at Lingfield is quite similar to what he trains on at home," Butler said, referring to his Churn Stables in Oxfordshire. "So it was a logical starting point."

Adding fuel to Elusive City's Breeders' Cup chances is that he is owned by The Thoroughbred Corporation, an outfit with a keen interest in American racing.

Butler plans to run Elusive City next at Newmarket on Oct. 3 in the six-furlong Group 1 Middle Park Stakes, the race Johannesburg used to vault himself to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. After that he will choose between the Juvenile and Newmarket's seven-furlong Group 1 Dewhurst Stakes on Oct. 19.

Butler did express concern about the Juvenile when he learned that it would be run at 1 1/8 miles this year. "That's likely to scare a lot of them away," he said. But should it frighten Elusive City?

He is by Elusive Quality who, in addition to his Grade 3 turf tallies in the seven-furlong Jaipur Handicap and the one-mile Poker Handicap, won going 1 1/16 miles on dirt in the first and third starts of his career.

Moreover, he is out of the unraced Dayjur mare Star of Paris, who herself is a half-sister to 1 1/4-mile winner Young Senor as well as to Millions, the winner of the Grade 3 Laurel Futurity at 1 1/8 miles on dirt.

Elusive City still has some growing up to do. He had trouble entering the gate in both the Richmond and the Morny and currently is being schooled to overcome his fears.

His most accomplished rivals at this stage hail from Ballydoyle. Van Nistelrooy, named for Manchester United's Dutch soccer star, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, made it 3 for 3 with a neck victory over modest rivals in the seven-furlong Group 2 Futurity Stakes at the Curragh last Saturday. By Storm Cat, he is a half-brother to Blue Grass winner Halory Hunter and he cost John Magnier $6.4 million at Keeneland last year. He appears to do only what is necessary for victory as his three wins have been by a total of less than a length. Is it that, or is he just a lazy rich kid?

Ladbrokes thinks he is for real. The British bookies have made him the 12-1 favorite for next year's

2000 Guineas. They list Elusive Quality at 20-1 with Statue of Liberty, another Aidan O'Brien charge, at 16-1.

A Storm Cat half-brother to Belmont and Travers winner Lemon Drop Kid, Statue of Liberty is undefeated in two starts, the most recent in the six-furlong Group 3 Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot. He has been sidelined by the the Ballydoyle virus and no date has been set for his return.

With none of Loder's juveniles impressing much, Godolphin has purchased Surbiton out of Barry Hills's barn. An El Prado colt, Surbiton was awarded a Timeform rating of 110 for his five-length romp in the listed Superlative Stakes at Newmarket on July 11, a figure that compares nicely with Elusive City's 114, Van Nistelrooy's 102, and Statue of Liberty's 111.

And where are the French juvenile colts? Nowhere to be seen as yet. There was not a single one in Elusive City's Prix Morny. French hope may reside in maiden winner Dalakhani, a Darshaan half-brother to Daylami. Like Van Nistelrooy and Surbiton, Dalakhani is nominated to the Group 1 Grand Criterium at Longchamp on Arc Day, Oct. 6, by which time we will have a much clearer picture of who might occupy Johannesburg's vacant throne.