07/21/2005 12:00AM

Weld always appealing in American Derby

Shaconage (right) has run in graded stakes in 12 of her last 13 races, but is winless in 10 starts.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Saturday's card at Arlington Park, billed as Million Preview Day, may indeed foreshadow what is to come on the big day: European dominance.

In two of the three graded stakes races Saturday at Arlington, The American Derby and the Arlington Handicap, I like European invaders to win. Only in the Modesty Handicap, the last of the three stakes on the card, do I prefer a horse with U.S. experience, and I didn't have much choice in the matter, since there are no Europeans in the field.

The American Derby, a Grade 2 race at 1 3/16 miles on turf that serves as a prep for the Secretariat, would more aptly be named the Irish-American Derby. In five runnings since the turn of the century, Irish trainer Dermot Weld has three wins and a second: Pine Dance won in 2000, Jazz Beat was second in 2002, Evolving Tactics won in 2003, and Simple Exchange won in 2004.

This year he is represented by Merger, my selection to win. Although Merger's 7-1-4-1 record is littered with more runner-up finishes than I like to see, he is well regarded by Timeform, which on three occasions gave Merger a rating between 108 and 112. To put those numbers in perspective, none of Weld's three American Derby winners this century had been rated as highly that often.

According to overseas reports, Weld has repeatedly said that Merger wants distance and firm ground. With partly cloudy to sunny skies forecasted for the Chicago area leading up to Saturday's race, Merger should get both.

Additionally, because the race is largely devoid of pace, it will likely unfold in a manner typical of a turf race in Europe - with slow early fractions followed by a test of acceleration. Look for him to outkick Purim and Gun Salute, the race favorites.

Arlington Handicap

Two races after the American Derby is the Grade 2 Arlington Handicap, race 7. Again I like a European shipper, Artiste Royal, a winner of 3 of his last 5 races at the Arlington Handicap's 1 1/4-mile distance.

A late-developing French invader, Artiste Royal has blossomed in recent months, posting Timeform ratings between 110 and 118. The latter figure was earned in his last start, a win in the Grade 3 La Coupe Stakes at Longchamp, a race that was legitimized by the subsequent Group 3 win of third-place finisher Autumn Glory.

The statistics for Artiste Royal's new U.S. trainer, Laura de Seroux - which appear below his past performances - may steer the betting public away from Artiste Royal. Her record with horses starting for her for the first time is 0 for 17, including a 0-for-13 stint with horses racing in North America for the first time.

Those statistics do not tell the whole story. They cover a short period - from the start of 2004 through Wednesday's racing - and do not take into account wins de Seroux had with European imports in earlier years.

I've watched de Seroux import enough talented Europeans to know her skill in training them. In 2002, for example - which falls beyond the range of the stats mentioned above - Little Treasure won both the Grade 2 San Clemente and the Grade 3 Pucker Up for her after being brought here from France.

Also that year, French import Dublino crossed the wire first for de Seroux in the $500,000 American Oaks before being disqualified. Immediately after, she won the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks.

Her recent numbers with imports are better than they appear, too. Last year, she brought Toasted to this country from France and raced him first on dirt to see if he would warrant being tested in Kentucky Derby preps. He flopped, finishing eighth in the San Felipe, but when he returned to turf for his next start, the La Puente Stakes at Santa Anita, Toasted triumphed at odds of over 25-1. Later in 2004, Toasted won the Arlington Classic and finished third in the American Derby.

Unlike Toasted in the San Felipe, Artiste Royal isn't trying an unfamiliar surface in the Arlington Handicap. He is at his best racing 1 1/4 miles on firm ground, giving players a reason to look past the stats.

Whether he can beat such classy runners as Vangelis and Cool Conductor remains to be seen, but at 10-1 odds on the morning line, the price is right.

Modesty Handicap

Although she has gone winless in her last 10 starts, Shaconage has a high level of class. Over the past 14 months, 12 of her 13 races have come in graded stakes.

Shaconage's losses have not been from a lack of effort. Shaconage twice ran second to Delta Princess during the recently concluded Churchill Downs meeting in paceless races that did not suit her running style. With the speedy Ide Be a Lady in the Modesty, jockey Gary Stevens should be able to get Shaconage to rate kindly behind the pace. She should benefit from facing a weaker group that does not include Delta Princess.