11/21/2003 1:00AM

Ferguson-Magnier battle one for the ages


Two of the biggest sporting figures in Europe, Alex Ferguson and John Magnier, have locked horns in a legal battle over the immense wealth being created by the much sought after stallion Rock of Gibraltar.

On Tuesday, Ferguson, manager of the world's most valuable professional sports club in soccer's Manchester United, filed suit in Dublin against Magnier's Coolmore Stud, for which Rock of Gibraltar stands. Sir Alex claims that since he had owned a 50 percent share in Rock of Gibraltar as a racehorse, he is entitled to that same percentage in stud fees.

Ferguson, an urbane Scotsman who in the past has come out on top in much-publicized run-ins with such soccer superstars as David Beckham and Eric Cantona, was surprised this summer when checks he was expecting from Coolmore during Rock of Gibraltar's first season at stud did not appear in his mailbox.

With Rock of Gibraltar - a seven-time Group 1-winning son of Danehill - standing in 2004 in Ireland for a fee of 65,000 euros (about $77,000), Ferguson was miffed at being excluded. He was later informed that his half-share in Rock of Gibraltar as a racehorse did not qualify him as an owner of Rock of Gibraltar as a stallion.

During the last few months, Ferguson's sword-rattling has led Coolmore to offer him a cool seven-million-pound ($11.7 million) settlement. Ferguson rejected the offer, but in so doing might have made a tactical error. Britain's Daily Mail reported on Wednesday that although Ferguson was listed officially with the Irish Turf Club as a 50 percent owner of Rock of Gibraltar, with Magnier's wife, Susan, owning the other half, the Scotsman had never paid for his share, nor had he ever paid training fees to Aidan O'Brien.

Ferguson's half-share was apparently a gentleman's agreement brokered by Mike Dillon, public relations director for British bookmakers Ladbrokes who also serves as a racing advisor to Magnier. Thus, it is unclear whether Ferguson is entitled to half of the $1,869,772 Rock of Gibraltar had earned since he became a 50 percent shareholder following the horse's sixth-place finish in the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot in June, 2001 - or if he has a right to both half those earnings and half the stud fees.

That will be for the courts to decide. Meanwhile, there is an intriguing subplot boiling below the headlines that could make tidal waves in the soccer world. John Magnier, in partnership with J.P. McManus, own a 23 percent share in Manchester United. Thus, Ferguson finds himself in the uncomfortable position of suing his boss.

Moreover, Ferguson's contract as manager of Manchester United is up for renewal. Negotiations have been suspended during the litigation, which Magnier said will be "vigorously contested."

In challenging Magnier on his home turf, Ferguson may have bitten off more than he can chew. Magnier is one of the most powerful men in Ireland. He was behind the passage of a law that exempts stallion owners in Ireland from paying tax on stud fees, and has been instrumental in getting the government to pass laws that have generated large increases in Irish purses.

The shuttling Rock of Gibraltar is currently spending the Southern Hemisphere spring mating season at Coolmore's Australian branch in Hunter Valley. This year, he is expected to generate 12 million pounds ($20 million) in earnings, half of which is certainly worth fighting for, especially because his value could actually increase in the near future.

Among the mares to which he was bred in Ireland this spring are the dams of Group 1 winners Dark Moondancer, Desert King, Desert Prince, Dress to Thrill, Golan, Lady of Chad, and Sulk, as well as Group 1 winners Choc Ice, Hula Angel, Marling, Terre a Terre, and Trusted Partner.

With his own sire, Danehill, having died this year, Rock of Gibraltar became even more important to Coolmore, where he stands alongside an international all-star team of stallions. Rock of Gibraltar shares Coolmore space with Sadler's Wells, Alzao, Choisir, Danehill Dancer, Fasliyev, Fusaichi Pegasus, Galileo, Giant's Causeway, Grand Lodge, Grand Slam, Hennessy, High Chaparral, Johannesburg, Montjeu, Night Shift, Peintre Celebre, Royal Academy, Spinning World, Tale of the Cat, Thunder Gulch, and Woodman, among others.

The stakes are high, and neither Ferguson nor Magnier is bluffing, bringing to mind the proverbial rock and a hard place. In this case, it is The Rock standing between two very hard men.