06/30/2003 11:00PM

Alamshar dethrones the king


DUBLIN - There are times when racing truly resembles the Sport of Kings rather than a mug's game, and that was the case at The Curragh Sunday when His Highness the Aga Khan chose to let Dalakhani and Alamshar, two top flight colts he bred and owns, compete against each other in the Budweiser Irish Derby for a winner's purse of roughly $850,000. Aidan O'Brien provided the chief opposition with six entries in the nine-horse field, but the overkill did little to improve Ballydoyle's disappointing record in classic races this season.

The Derby, first run in 1866, is a high point on the Dublin social calendar and always attracts an overflow crowd to County Kildare. The scene is often compared to Royal Ascot because of the rampant displays of fashion, but the Irish, for obvious historical reasons, don't invite any of the English royals. Although Budweiser, brewed in Ireland by the Guinness people, was widely available around The Curragh, the ladies in fanciful hats and designer dresses steered clear of it and preferred to hang out at the champagne bar instead.

There, as everywhere, the talk was all about Dalakhani. The colt, unbeaten in six starts, cruised to an easy win in the French Derby earlier in the month and was a prohibitive morning-line favorite - or "jolly," as the Irish say - at odds of 1-2. (He closed at 4-7.) He had the services of Christophe Soumillon, a cocky young Belgian rider touted as the next Frankie Dettori, who praised the colt's outstanding acceleration and "nerves of steel." In interviews, Soumillon made his mount sound like a lock.

The only question mark, it seemed, was whether Dalakhani would handle the Irish turf, described as "yielding" after some rain. The rain was not necessarily good news for Alamshar, even though the colt is stabled at The Curragh and has encountered such conditions before. John Oxx, his trainer, calls him a "summer horse" that needs fast, firm ground to do his best. Alamshar can also be finicky. His lackluster performance in the Epsom Derby scared off bettors, who let him drift up to 4-1.

Actually, it was a minor miracle that Alamshar went to post at all. Earlier in the week, Oxx had listed the colt's chances of running at just 50-50. Alamshar couldn't even walk straight due to a pulled muscle in his back, and a French chiropractor was called in to work on him. Alamshar's recovery also was aided by the efforts of Liz Kent, a physiotherapist who virtually lived with Alamshar for a time and even threw in a treatment for Johnny Murtagh, the colt's jockey, whose back was aching, too.

In the end, Alamshar was judged perfectly fit, but there were still doubters in the crowd. They had doubts about Aidan O'Brien's 3-year-olds, also. Presumably O'Brien was glad to be home in Ireland again, since his strike rate in the UK is a lowly 14 percent so far this year. His only classic winner, Yesterday, is a filly, but Coolmore Stud, Ballydoyle's parent organization, wants black type for its future stallions and might be growing impatient.

In fact, rumor had it that Kieran Fallon, the hottest rider in the UK, would be hired to replace Michael Kinane, now 44, as the top Ballydoyle jock next season. Fallon denied the rumor, and though O'Brien also issued a mild denial, he noted "none of us is getting any younger," scarcely a ringing endorsement of Kinane.

Kinane picked The Great Gatsby, runner-up at Epsom, as his mount, forsaking Brian Boru, who was so feisty in the parade ring one television pundit suggested "his testicles might be going to his brain." O'Brien's other colts seemed a cut below those two and some had their work riders in the irons, hardly a sign of serious intent. Dalakhani, on the other hand, was so highly valued there were five gentlemen in suits escorting him around the ring. They had the look of bodyguards, not grooms.

The race got off to a curious start. Handel and High Country, both in owner Michael Tabor's colors, burst from the gate and soon put almost 30 lengths between them and the rest of the field, perhaps because their jockeys were inexperienced and misjudged the pace. Longshot players in the crowd felt their pulses beating swiftly for a while, until the gap began to close and the colts ran out of gas.

At the top of the stretch, Soumillon had Dalakhani ideally positioned on the outside, with a clear run ahead of him. Dalakhani accelerated smoothly and passed the tiring leaders with ease, looking as dominant as he did in the French Derby, where he'd come from off the pace to win. But, he couldn't shake Alamshar, who refused to quit and bore down on him over the last 200 yards or so, digging deep to take the race by a half-length and turning in the third-fastest time ever for the Irish Derby.

If Johnny Murtagh's back still bothered him, he didn't show it. An old pro, he is normally reserved after a victory, but now he was blowing kisses to the hometown crowd and even planted a few on Alamshar's neck. Murtagh had not written off Alamshar after the Epsom failure, believing the colt just didn't like the track, so this was sweet revenge. He seemed to enjoy sticking it to the French contingent, too, and said the race was "pure magic."

The Aga Khan was just as proud. This was his fifth win in the Irish Derby - he has won more derbies in Ireland, France, and the UK than anyone else. He patted Alamshar warmly and smiled in a beatific way when he was presented with the trophy, looking appropriately humble as befits a Harvard graduate who is Imam of the Shia Imami Muslims and a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed.