06/11/2003 12:00AM

Faith in Kris Kin rewarded


DUBLIN, Ireland - The happiest man at Epsom Downs on Vodafone Derby Day was surely Saeed Suhail, the owner of Kris Kin, a U.S.-bred colt who defeated 19 other 3-year-olds to claim a winner's purse of about $1.4 million.

Suhail had gambled roughly $150,000 as a supplement to get his colt into the race, and he couldn't stop smiling despite the unfamiliar top hat on his head. Michael Stoute, Kris Kin's trainer, was just as relieved, since he had urged Suhail to pay the supplement and looked every bit the prophet after the result was in.

First run in 1780 and long known as the Epsom Derby, it is always something of a carnival, so popular that it used to be a public holiday. More than 100,000 fans showed up in Surrey, England, last Saturday to enjoy both the racing and the infield "fun fair," where you could ride a ferris wheel, vent your frustrations in a bump 'em car, or consult with a gypsy fortune teller about the exacta you intended to wheel. Though a little rain fell, the crowd was spared the sort of deluge Charles Dickens witnessed in 1863. Arriving by train for the race, Dickens found the Epsom station "an oasis of boards on a sea of mud."

The racecourse at Epsom is particularly demanding. It resembles a small hill. For the Derby, contested at 1 1/2 miles, the horses must climb steadily for the first five furlongs or so, making an ascent of about 140 feet. The course then drops back 100 feet toward the finish before leveling off over the last 100 yards, except for a tricky dip. The downhill grade can turn the stretch drive into a dizzying sprint as horses gain their second wind.

As usual, Aidan O'Brien had a strong hand. With four colts at the ready, he hoped to win his third straight Derby. The highly touted Brian Boru has been disappointing so far this season, but Michael Kinane still chose to ride him. Kinane didn't sound confident, though, and wondered if Alberto Giacometti might have a better shot. O'Brien also entered Ballestrini, purchased for more than $2 million as a yearling in 2001, and The Great Gatsby, who attracted some literary money from the Fitzgerald scholars in the grandstand.

Kris Kin was a bit of a mystery. Stoute called him "one of the laziest horses I've ever trained." The colt barely exerted himself on his morning gallops, but he won the Dee Stakes at Chester so convincingly in early May that Suhail, who has long coveted an English Classic, was willing to dig deep into his pockets for the supplemental fee. That tipped off the bettors, of course, and when champion jockey Kieren Fallon was booked for the Derby, it started a feeding frenzy that would cost the bookies an arm and a leg. Kris Kin, opening at 14-1, closed at 6-1. One bookmaker took a six-figure beating, and nobody shed a tear.

Going into the gate, Kris Kin did not inspire confidence. He was sweaty and seemed anxious in front of the noisy crowd, but this proved to be deceptive. At the break, it was The Great Gatsby who grabbed the lead and set the pace - a surprise, really, since his pedigree suggests stamina, not speed. Still, he held onto the lead for the first mile, while Brian Boru and Refuse to Bend, another Irish colt and the 5-2 favorite, failed to fire. Alberto Giacometti stayed in the hunt for a time, but the trip was ultimately too long for him.

Often jockeys get into trouble at the crest of Epsom's hill. The course bends to the left, and horses can be knocked about as the riders battle for position. But Fallon cleverly avoided the trap by keeping Kris Kin covered up on the rail. The Great Gatsby pressed on into the stretch while the opposition faded, and Pat Eddery, his jockey, seemed to have a fourth Derby victory in the bag until Fallon took Kris Kin out wide and asked for a run, which the colt delivered in smashing style. In the end, poor Gatsby had no more luck than his namesake in the novel.

For O'Brien, the loss must have been tough to swallow. It was his third near-miss of the Epsom meeting, all in the most valuable races. His string of misfortunes began last Friday in the Coronation Cup, a Group 1 race for 4-year-olds and up. Black Sam Bellamy, Ballydoyle's hope, had recently demolished a classy group at The Curragh, but he was unable to transfer his excellent form on Ireland's soft ground to the good going at Epsom. Sent off as the lukewarm favorite, Black Sam Bellamy grabbed the lead three furlongs out, but he was soon struggling, and his opponents wore him down.

Things got worse for O'Brien in the Vodafone Oaks. His star filly Yesterday was highly fancied to repeat her success in the Irish 1000 Guineas, where Kinane produced a brilliant tactical ride to keep Six Perfections, the French challenger, boxed in throughout the race. But this time it was Kinane who had a terrible trip. Yesterday was in a perfect spot to attack as the horses headed home, but Kinane couldn't find a hole. If a gap appeared, it closed before he could reach it. Only in the last furlong did he manage to swing left and let the filly go, but it was too late. Yesterday, though game, lost by a neck to Casual Look.

It should have been her race.