04/26/2004 11:00PM

Emerald Isle meets bluegrass


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It's five-thirty in the morning. Never a good sign. Sun-up is still an hour away. The best most people can hope for at five-thirty in the morning is a heartbeat. Never mind conscious thought or decisive action. Five-thirty in the morning is strictly for the pros.

It was no surprise, therefore, to see Frank Lyons miked up and hitting the mark for a video crew from the TV Guide cable channel at five-thirty on Tuesday morning at Churchill Downs. Neither was it a shock to see Castledale come bouncing out of his stall in the stakes barn, barely 12 hours after a cross-country flight, with Lyons describing his every move as the colt got his first taste of the track.

They're two of a kind, Castledale and Lyons, with the only difference a subtle matter of species. Both sons of the Emerald Isle, Castledale was born on his toes, with attitude to burn, while Lyons rarely suffers through a dull afternoon. Whatever brought them together - kismet, karma, or plain old Irish luck - thank goodness it happened. Of all the rich stories running through this 130th Kentucky Derby, theirs is the one media-ready and dripping with potential lore.

Castledale comes to Louisville by way of victories in the Generous Stakes last fall and the Santa Anita Derby in April, when he upset a field that included such Kentucky Derby hopefuls as Imperialism, Quintons Gold Rush, Wimbledon, and St Averil, not to mention Rock Hard Ten, the best horse on the outside looking in. On Saturday, Castledale will try to prove that 30-1 shocker was no fluke.

Disclaimers up front, though. Lyons takes great pains to point out that even though he spotted Castledale last summer in Ireland and negotiated the purchase, he is but 15 percent owner, with the other 85 belonging to Greg Knee. And while Lyons earned a reputation as a trainer in his own right - winning the 1995 Breeders' Cup Sprint with Desert Stormer - it is Jeff Mullins who calls 100 percent of the shots with Castledale.

"I pretty much had the better part of him sold before I had to come up with the money," Lyons said. "So full credit goes to Greg for stepping up and taking the chance. And Jeff is a very good trainer - that's obvious. We're lucky to have him."

It is Lyons, though, who has constant television exposure in the Thoroughbred industry as resident analyst for the Television Games racing network (TVG), on which he plays the part of a dashing former Irish trainer with a smooth patter who comes across like he just happened to drop by the studio for a chat. When Lyons says a horse is in with a chance, wise TVG account holders have learned to take heed. When he dismisses a horse, he does so with regret, leaving the animal with as much dignity as possible under the circumstances.

Now, with a true Derby horse in the news, Lyons is juggling a cocktail of inner lives as part owner, former trainer, and media savant. It is to his credit that he can play all three roles and still function, as he did for the TV Guide crew early Tuesday.

"Will the light bother him?" wondered producer Jim Rodriguez, as Castledale and rider Joe Vaca pranced to the track. A fair question, since it was still pitch dark.

"I don't think so," Lyons replied, "if you turn it on and show it to him gradually. Anyway, he's getting to like the spotlight."

With Mullins not yet on the Derby scene, Lyons was fully qualified to manage a simple jog and its aftermath, all the while waxing rhapsodic over Castledale's walk, Castledale's grit, and Castledale's ability to eat a full tub of feed right off the plane.

When Lyons warned that Castledale would be looking for a fight, or something to breed, the colt squealed and spun on cue. When asked about the rest of Castledale's Derby week, Lyons deadpanned that he'd probably see the sights - "the Horse Park, the Derby Museum, a few farms" - before answering straight. And when asked to describe the process of shipping a horse cross-country, Lyons patiently explained the choices between a specialized equine transport flight and Federal Express.

"The only problem with that," Lyons added, "is getting the bastard in the envelope."

Lyons has been doing this for most of his 40 years, spinning tales, breathing horses, living life at an accelerated rate, from his youth in Dublin, to his early Irish racing days working for Frank Dunne and Gita Weld, to his American entr?e nearly 20 years ago at a Kentucky farm. Now, as a member of racing's electronic media, his voice stands out in sheer depth of experience, while his mates remind him that he's more than just another pretty face. Thank goodness.

"I feel like it's my duty to help the horses as much as I can, because they've helped me," Lyons said. "Right now, that means presenting the game as best I can on TVG, maybe buying a nice horse now and then, hopefully helping a few people have some fun."

And maybe winning a Kentucky Derby?

"Oh, I can't even think about that," Lyons protested. "That's almost too much to ask for. But, you know, he's in with a chance."