03/21/2003 1:00AM

This year's European horses to watch

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While racing returned to Paris with the season-opening meeting at Maisons-Laffitte on Feb. 28, the British and Irish flat racing seasons are only beginning this week.

Thursday, the John Dunlop-trained Dandoun won his second straight Doncaster Mile, the listed race that serves as the Yorkshire track's opening-day feature. The Curragh reopens on Sunday with Tomahawk favored to take the listed Loughbrown Stakes. Tomahawk is an Aidan O'Brien-trained Triple Crown nominee who finished ninth in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

O'Brien is loaded with top class 3-year-olds, but the best of them at this stage, Hold That Tiger, will not be returning to the United States for the Kentucky Derby. Hold That Tiger finished third last year in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and won the Group 1 Grand Criterium.

Michael Tabor, co-owner of Hold That Tiger, said earlier this week that the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket will be Hold That Tiger's early-season goal. In reaction to the announcement, British bookmakers Coral Eurobet immediately cut the odds on Hold That Tiger from 5-1 to 7-2 favoritism for the one-mile classic on May 3.

O'Brien will be equipped with more than the usual number of older horses as well this season. Owner John Magnier announced that High Chaparral would remain in training in 2003. Winner of both the Epsom Derby and the Irish Derby, High Chaparral capped his 3-year-old season with a professional victory in the Breeders' Cup Turf to earn an Eclipse Award as best American turf horse. He will be joined again at O'Brien's Ballydoyle yard by the talented but perplexing Hawk Wing. While High Chaparral will go for 1 1/2-mile races such as the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, Hawk Wing will likely seek a repeat of his Eclipse Stakes victory and other 10-furlong races such as the Juddmonte International and the Champion Stakes.

The events at Nad Al Sheba next Saturday night will bear close watching for clues to the direction that Godolphin's older horses will take later this spring. While Sulamani, who was purchased by Godolphin from the Niarchos family after his second-place finish in the Arc, could well be the most promising older European horse in training, he missed his expected seasonal debut on March 8. It is unclear whether he will contest the Dubai World Cup against stablemates Moon Ballad and Grandera as well as Nayef, or go in the Dubai Sheema Classic at 1 1/2 miles on turf.

Sulamani, like his arch-rival High Chaparral, seems best suited to 12 furlongs on turf. That division will be augmented by the very good French fillies Bright Sky and Pearly Shells.

Bright Sky gave her owners at Ecurie Wildenstein and their trainer, Elie Lellouche, something to look forward to with victories in the Prix de Diane (French Oaks) and the Prix de l'Opera. Probably better at 10 than 12 furlongs, Bright Sky will be a perfect replacement for Aquarelliste, who will be bred to Sadler's Wells after her run in the Dubai World Cup.

Pearly Shells may be even more promising than Bright Sky. Trained by Francois Rohaut, Pearly Shells capped a five-race winning streak in the Prix Vermeille, in which she had Bright Sky 3 1/2 lengths back in third. The Prix Ganay on April 27 at Longchamp could be the re-entry point for both fillies.

With the retirement of Rock of Gibraltar, who will depart for Australia this summer along with Johannesburg to become a dual-hemisphere stallion, Where or When is the leading older miler in Europe. The winner of the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, Where or When will have a repeat victory in that Ascot fixture as his goal for trainer Terry Mills.

Dark horses to be wary of include Dress to Thrill, the Dermot Weld-trained winner of the Matriarch Stakes. Weld also has a pair of talented stayers in Vinnie Roe, whose mid-season goal will be either the 2 1/2-mile Ascot Gold Cup or the 1 1/2-mile Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot, and Melbourne Cup winner Media Puzzle, who will miss the Dubai Sheema Classic. Salve Regina, the Andreas Schutz-trained winner of the Preis der Diana (German Oaks), is another who could have a big say in European middle-distance races.

Massigann showed signs of becoming a first-rate miler last year for Alain de Royer-Dupre. A 4-year-old son of Selkirk owned by the Aga Khan, Massigann could have the Group 2 Prix du Muguet on May 1 at Saint-Cloud as his early season goal.

While Chantilly will close for the second straight year in mid-June for renovations on its charming but ancient grandstand, the Curragh is looking for ways to rebuild its nondescript grandstand.

Officials estimate that a new stand would cost $21 million. Horse Racing Ireland is in line to provide 40 percent of that, while it is hoped that the Aga Khan can kick in with something. The Irish Turf Club is trying to generate further income by reworking its Curragh lease with Ireland's Department of Defense.

France-Galop has announced plans to run dirt races at Deauville for the first time this August. France-Galop president Louis Romanet would also like to install a dirt track at Longchamp, but his plans to build a new grandstand there appear to have hit a snag.

The $8 million bonus money being offered for the recently announced British Summer Triple Crown and Grand Slam for horses winning three or four selected Group 1 races in England might have been better dispersed equally among British group races, but it might quiet Sheikh Mohammed's complaints about British prize money. In the meantime, the World Series Racing Championship lost one of its headline events in the Dubai World Cup. However, look for Godolphin to continue to support the World Series, as Sheikh Mohammed has stated that his Newmarket-based horses will compete even less in England this year in search of big international prizes.