04/21/2005 11:00PM

Why ancient 2000 Guineas matters today

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NEW YORK - The race's name is an anachronism. Hardly more than 20,000 people ever turn out to see it run. It bares no resemblance to anything that looks like a horse race run in the United States.

Still, the 2000 Guineas Stakes, which will be run for the 197th time on the straight Rowley Mile at Newmarket on Saturday, commands a place in the history of Thoroughbred racing to which few other races can aspire.

First run in 1809, the Guineas takes pride as the first major classic race on the international calendar, yet its result frequently goes unnoticed by Americans because it is usually run on the same day as the Kentucky Derby. Every 10 years or so, by a quirk in the calendar it moves forward a week from the first Saturday in May to the last Saturday in April. This is one of those years.

An undulating straight mile with no American-style guideposts such as a first turn or a second turn for either horse or rider to determine his whereabouts vis-a-vis the half-mile pole or the quarter pole we have here, the 2000 Guineas is a three-way balancing act of speed, athleticism, and stamina. Lack any one of the three qualities, and Guineas glory will prove most elusive.

The 2000 Guineas is the first leg of a British Triple Crown, followed five weeks later by the 1 1/2-mile Epsom Derby and 15 weeks after that by the 1 3/4-mile, 132-yard St. Leger Stakes.

The Guineas began as a sequel to the successes two decades earlier of the St. Leger, the Derby, and the Oaks. The 1000 Guineas, over the same mile as the 2000 but restricted to 3-year-old fillies, had its inaugural running in 1814, and completed the first series of organized races that might be called a pattern, thus laying the foundation for springtime classics in every racing nation in the world.

At a distance of one mile, the 2000 Guineas was instrumental in bringing racing into line with the sport that we recognize today. Prior to 1800, most races were run at distances of 1 1/2 miles and beyond. Moreover, they were run in heats, with the winners of each heat returning to the track not more than an hour later for the final.

Vitally important in England from its inception, the Guineas influence soon spread beyond the British Isles.

The importation to the United States of the 1834 2000 Guineas winner Glencoe is a benchmark in the history of American racing and breeding, and serves to illustrate the versatility of the 19th century Thoroughbred.

A son of six-time leading British sire Sultan, Glencoe went on to win both of England's most important staying races, the Ascot Gold Cup and the Goodwood Cup. His purchase in 1836 by the Irish-born Tennesseean James Jackson gave American racing its first major jolt of top-class British Thoroughbred blood. Glencoe went on to lead the American sire lists eight times. Virtually every Thoroughbred running in America today is descended through one line or another from Glencoe.

The Guineas of 1865 proved to be the start of something big when it was taken by the French-bred, French-owned and French-trained Gladiateur. The "Avenger of Waterloo" went on to become the second British Triple Crown winner that year. Although a disappointment at stud, Gladiateur remains one of the most historically important horses that ever raced, as he signaled the emergence of Thoroughbred excellence in a part of the world other than England.

Another Guineas winner that had a profound influence in America was Rock Sand. Winner of the 1903 Triple Crown, he was brought to the United States in 1906 by August Belmont, for whom he sired Mahubah, the dam of Man o' War, the horse who can be credited with introducing the modern era to American racing.

Tudor Minstrel, winner of the Guineas in 1947, might have been the first indication that a preference for speed was creeping into the Thoroughbred gene pool. Fourth in the Derby, he went on to sire King of the Turks, the winner of the one-mile Sussex Stakes, and Toro, the winner of the French 2000 Guineas. Later, he sired Tomy Lee, the British-bred winner of the 1959 Kentucky Derby.

While Glencoe, Rock Sand, and Tudor Minstrel may have provided American racing with a shot in the arm, Nijinsky was an integral part of a reverse trend that had begun in the late 1960's: the exportation of North American bloodstock to Europe.

A Canadian-bred son of Northern Dancer, Nijinsky is without question one of the greatest Thoroughbreds who ever lived. He won the 2000 Guineas in 1970 and continued on to win the Epsom Derby and the St. Leger. He was, however, the last British Triple Crown winner, as it became increasingly rare for 2000 Guineas winners to try the Derby, much less the St. Leger.

At heart, Nijinsky was a 12-furlong horse fast enough to win the Guineas. He sired three Epsom Derby winners - Golden Fleece, Shahrastani, and Lammtarra - as well as Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand. But the handwriting was on the wall. The commercial breeding market was beginning to demand specialists, most of whom were needed to win at or about a mile.

One of those specialists was Nureyev. He crossed the line first in the 1980 Guineas but was disqualified, making the winner Known Fact. Another son of Northern Dancer, Nureyev never raced again and was soon sent back to Kentucky, where he made as much of a mark on the breed as did Nijinsky.

Rock of Gibraltar is a perfect example of the kind of 2000 Guineas winners that have dominated at Newmarket since 1990. A son of the outstanding stallion Danehill, Rock of Gibraltar won the Guineas in 2002 and went on to amass a total of seven Group 1 victories, six of them at a mile, one at seven furlongs.

While Rock of Gibraltar would not have stayed a mile and a half, he was the the sort who could stay the testing miles at Newmarket and Ascot and is the personification of what is needed to win a contemporary Guineas.

But great as Rock of Gibraltar was, he was one-dimensional compared to Glencoe, Gladiateur, Rock Sand, or Nijinsky. On Saturday, however, we may see a throwback in the Guineas field - Dubawi.

By Dubai Millennium, a Group 1 winner at both eight and 10 furlongs, and out of Zomaradah - winner of four group races between 10 and 11 furlongs - Dubawi is not only the 5-4 favorite for the 2000 Guineas, but also the 4-1 choice for the Epsom Derby on June 4.

Can he pull off the Guineas-Derby double like Nijinsky did? Or is he a miler in the mold of Rock of Gibraltar? Much, as usual, will be revealed on the Rowley Mile next Saturday.