04/11/2002 11:00PM

Ballydoyle can't help eyeing Derby

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ROSEGREEN, Ireland - Aidan O'Brien was driving his wine red Mitsubishi 4x4 down a smooth dirt road in the heart of his Ballydoyle training center when the conversation turned from horses to horticulture. A visitor wondered about the trees lining each side of the road, tall stands of graceful evergreens reaching into the blue Irish sky. O'Brien knitted his brow, then let slip an embarrassed smile.

"Tell you the truth," he confessed, "I never really noticed them before."

O'Brien's reply came as no great surprise. At the age of 32, a champion trainer eight times already, his focus has become legendary. If the subject is something other than his horses or his family, chances are O'Brien will be at sea. He admits to a severe case of tunnel-vision, and he very much enjoys the view.

Why shouldn't he? Last year alone, O'Brien's runners left the protective serenity of Ballydoyle's 400 acres to win 23 Group or Grade 1 races in five different countries. He became the first trainer in 24 years to win both the Irish and English titles.

Now comes the hard part.

In 127 years worth of Kentucky Derbies, only one winner has been prepared for the race outside the United States. On May 4, at Churchill Downs, O'Brien hopes to become the first Irish trainer to saddle the winner of the America's most cherished prize. His dream rests mainly with the sturdy bay colt Johannesburg, the champion 2-year-old of both North America and Europe in 2001, who made an everlasting impact in winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall in New York.

Johannesburg's preparation for a run at the Derby is unconventional by all standards held holy on the American side of the pond. He idled through a long, wet Irish winter. He has had but one prep race this spring, which he lost, suffering the first defeat of his career. And he will be defying a pedigree that would seem to leave him breathless at the thought of the Derby's

1 1/4 miles.

Such things have already occurred to O'Brien, and yet he marches on. Success breeds bravery, no doubt. The last time O'Brien ran a horse at Churchill Downs, he came within a nose of winning the Breeders' Cup Classic. Then there is the inescapable fact that he wakes up every morning at Ballydoyle, where horses are allowed to be trained with a depth and attention impossible to duplicate at even the most accommodating American racetracks.

"I don't know know if Johannesburg is the one," said Michael Dickinson, who worked two summers at Ballydoyle in the early 1970's before commencing his successful transatlantic career as a trainer. "But I have no doubt that at some point a Derby winner will be trained at Ballydoyle."

In the beginning a half century ago, Ballydoyle was simple farmland in the heart of County Tipperary. In the nearby village of Rosegreen there was a Roman Catholic church, and graveyard and a school, but not much else. Then the legendary Irish trainer Vincent O'Brien turned the land into his private training grounds, building a network of stables, paths, and "gallops" that exist to this day.

Vincent retired in 1994, at the age of 77, with a list of accomplishments that is beyond exaggeration. When it came to 3-year-old colts, the first O'Brien won European derbies almost out of reflex, including a record six at Epsom. And although he never went so far as to try the American version, he was the first European trainer to view America as a verdant market.

"His influence is pervasive," said John Gosden, who worked at Ballydoyle in the mid-1970's, then commenced a training career of his own. "He led the way over to Keeneland for the July sales and took home horses like The Minstrel for $200,000. Then, when they were through, he'd have horses go back to stud in Kentucky at places like Claiborne Farm."

Aidan O'Brien began his association with Ballydoyle in 1996, phasing in his jumpers with the powerful Coolmore racing and breeding operation, run by Vincent's son-in-law, John Magnier. The fact that the new master of Ballydoyle is also an O'Brien is a coincidence that requires no deep explanation, since the name is far from uncommon. Vincent lives in Australia now, but even before Aidan was hired, they had never met. The two O'Briens are related only in spirit.

"One thing they have in common for sure," said Tommy Murphy, who was Vincent O'Brien's top Irish jockey 30 years ago and still serves Ballydoyle as Aidan O'Brien's assistant. "They're not men who go out of their way looking for excuses. And when they make a decision, they don't spend time wondering if they're right."

The entrance to Ballydoyle is guarded by a nondescript set of iron gates on the west side of the Irish Road 688. Polite but insistent security personnel ask the visitor to pull over and wait by a bronze statue of Nijinsky, the 1970 English Triple Crown winner trained by Vincent O'Brien, while a call of verification is placed to the main office.

The entry road is flanked on the right by a 4 1/2-furlong grass course, around which runs a raised all-weather track bedded with densely packed wood chips and topped with a bouncy, four-inch layer of fine bark shavings.

Off to the left, set back from the road, the skeleton of a new stabling yard rises from former pasture land. Due to be completed this summer, it will be named for Giant's Causeway, the Ballydoyle colt who won five Group 1 races in 2000 and nearly stole the show from Tiznow at the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. Its 25 stalls will house the cream of the Ballydoyle 3-year-olds, who currently reside in the main yard at the heart of the property.

Johannesburg resides in the stall once occupied by Nijinsky. So says the brass plaque affixed to the wall. He has grown since his appearance at the Breeders' Cup, larger in all dimensions, and still he maintains the look of a fast colt who prefers to get on with business. His sire, Hennessey, was much the same way.

An American horse would kill to have Johannesburg's training routine. O'Brien's horses spend as much as an hour and a half out of their stalls each day, walking, trotting, and cantering over a variety of surfaces, then grazing on lush Irish pasture grass before bedding down for the day. Only the most contrary Thoroughbred would go sour, and Johannesburg is a proper gent.

"Come on out tomorrow," came the message from O'Brien on a recent Friday. "Johannesburg will be on the gallops at first light."

First light on this particular morning was about 7, and as Johannesburg and his pack of workmates strolled up the wood chip gallop to commence their exercise, a sun the color of deep tangerine rose through the light mist of the eastern horizon. The morning would be cool and clear.

"That's a bad sign, isn't it," O'Brien said as he parked the 4x4 at an angle, ready to gauge each galloping set of three. "You know the saying, 'Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.' "

Johannesburg, with Mick Mahoney aboard, did his work with his usual aplomb, tracking Shoal Creek (Johannesburg's traveling mate) and Rock of Gibralter (owned by famed soccer coach Alex Ferguson) in a tight threesome down the wood chips. This is a colt for whom speed is no issue, and O'Brien knows it. The challenge for the Kentucky Derby is spreading that speed over 10 furlongs.

"He's got the action for the dirt," O'Brien said, describing Johannesburg. "A shorter stride than you'd think of in a classic grass runner, and very fast. Our job will be to get him switched off a bit more than he was in the Breeders' Cup. I thought he'd need a little more early speed for that race, around one turn. What really pleased me was the way he cruised along at a pretty high rate and then kicked home."

The Breeders' Cup Juvenile was at 8 1/2 furlongs. Has Johannesburg found that extra 660 yards at Ballydoyle over the winter?

"He's grown physically the way I'd hoped," O'Brien said. "You always worry that they'll make that leap from 2 to 3. Certainly, his pedigree does not suggest he's bred for 10 furlongs. But then, before the Breeders' Cup he'd never run farther than six furlongs.

"The quarantine in Kentucky is a concern," O'Brien went on. "We would want to get there on the Tuesday before the race, as we did before the Breeders' Cup. But unlike the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs, there is no quarantine facility there for the Derby. We'd have to fly seven or eight hours to Keeneland, clear quarantine there, and then van an hour and a half over to Churchill Downs, maybe as late as the morning of the race. That's a lot to ask.

"I'd love to take a horse to the Derby," he added. "It's one of the world's great races. But there's a thousand little things that need to be taken into consideration. And at the end of the day, it's all those little things that add up to the difference."

O'Brien was not hedging. But he was becoming more and more impressed with the challenge ahead. Events of last weekend served as a further reality check at Ballydoyle.

On April 6, Johannesburg's stablemate Castle Gandolfo traveled to England to win the Foster's - International Trial Stakes at Lingfield Park, over an all-weather surface that can be described as oily sand bound with bits of cloth and rubber. O'Brien has a round pen full of it, just to give his horses a feel.

As a son of Gone West, with a pedigree and a record that indicates he can handle the Derby's 10 furlongs, Castle Gandolfo did nothing to discourage O'Brien from taking him to America.

The results of Johannesburg's first 2002 race, however, could have been better. Running in the April 7 Gladness Stakes at The Curragh - a two-hour drive north from Ballydoyle - over 1,400 meters on a sticky, damp grass course that finished on a rise, Johannesburg was beaten on the line by the very good 4-year-old filly Rebelline. In American terms, the Gladness outcome was roughly equivalent to Came Home losing his 3-year-old debut at a flat mile to a seasoned pro like Banshee Breeze. But only by a half a head.

"I still think he'll go to Kentucky," observed rival trainer Dermot Weld after the race. "I think he should go."

Weld knows what it takes to win an American classic from Ireland. He's the only trainer who has done it. In 1990, Weld took advantage of a dilapidated American 3-year-old division to win the Belmont Stakes by

8 1/4 lengths with Go and Go, a son of Be My Guest, who was trained by Vincent O'Brien.

Go and Go won the 1989 Laurel Futurity when it was rained off the grass, so at least Weld knew he had a colt who could handle American dirt. Even so, Weld thought Go and Go might still be an Epsom Derby horse. After winning a minor race in his first start at 3, Go and Go was given a chance to earn his way to Epsom in a top-class prep at Derrinstown, in Ireland. He finished fourth.

"I concluded that he was probably a better horse on dirt," Weld said. "By that time it was too late for the Kentucky Derby, so I pointed him for the Belmont."

Go and Go's Belmont jockey was Mick Kinane, who also rides Johannesburg. Together they are 6 for 7 on grass, but it is the colt's lone dirt race in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile that impressed Kinane the most. If Johannesburg makes it to Louisville, he would give 42-year-old Kinane his first ride in the Derby.

"I've seen a lot of them, though," Kinane said on the day of the Gladness. "Churchill Downs seems a bit slower than most American tracks, so you'd need to be able to get the trip.

"I guess he still needs to prove he can get the Derby distance," Kinane added. "But then, they said he couldn't get the distance in the Breeders' Cup either. Never put it past a horse like him."

The image lingers. Johannesburg and Kinane sitting tight around Belmont's sweeping turn, cruising along easily and then bursting to the lead with a furlong to run, leaving Repent, Siphonic, Came Home, and Officer behind him.

O'Brien, however, knows the difference between a brilliant 2-year-old and Derby horse. And since his mandate from Coolmore is to maximize the potential of each well-bred runner, with the ultimate goal of creating a highly commercial stallion, he will be bringing Johannesburg and Castle Gandolfo to Louisville only if he thinks one of they can be truly competitive. The decision will be made this week.

"The Gladness was a tough race, make no mistake," O'Brien said. "Giant's Causeway was all out to win the same race two years ago, and Johannesburg got a lot out of it. Seven furlongs on that course was as testing as a 8 or 9 furlongs on flat, fast ground.

"Still, the odds are all stacked against us," he warned. "No matter what you do, I think you've got to be a lot better to go from here and win. If you're only just as good as the American colts, you're probably not good enough."