03/21/2006 12:00AM

First foreigner here for the Derby

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Martin Lynch / Racing Post
Silent Times (left) finishes in a dead heat with Close to You in the Champagne Stakes at Doncaster, England, last September. He has arrived in Kentucky for Saturday's Lane's End.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - In the more well-known cases of horses shipping from overseas to run in the Kentucky Derby, standard procedure has been to arrive a week or two before the race. And having seen the rather disappointing results, Eoghan O'Neill is trying something different.

O'Neill and the Derby hopeful he trains in England for owner John Fretwell, Silent Times, already have arrived in Kentucky with the hopes of parlaying big efforts in the Lane's End Stakes and Blue Grass Stakes into a berth in the 132nd Derby. Silent Times arrived Saturday at Keeneland, where the colt cleared quarantine Monday, and will be trained lightly up to the $500,000 Lane's End, a Grade 2 that is shaping up with a large field of 3-year-olds for its 35th running Saturday at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky.

O'Neill, 35, said he arrived early in large part to race Silent Times over Turfway's Polytrack, the same synthetic surface used at his home training facility at Averham Park in Nottinghamshire, England. Another major reason is that Silent Times, as a Group 2 winner, essentially "would have been eligible only for the 2000 Guineas," a highly competitive Group 1 race that O'Neill believes would not have served the colt well toward the Derby. "In our program, we are penalized [weight] to run in [lesser] races if you are a Group 2 winner at 2, so it didn't make sense to run there.

"Nobody's done it this way before, at least that I know of," O'Neill said Tuesday from Keeneland. "But things are different now, aren't they?"

The most notable change, said O'Neill, was the invention of Polytrack. Although Silent Times, an Irish-bred, has not raced since dead-heating for the win in the Sept. 9 Champagne Stakes at Doncaster, O'Neill believes the colt is sufficiently fit because he has trained steadily over Polytrack. In fact, Fretwell recently was quoted in the Racing Post as saying the horse "will be as fit as a flea off the plane."

"This horse loves Polytrack," said O'Neill, who has been training on his own for five years after having served as an assistant under John Gosden. "I have no concerns about [fitness]. He's had three racecourse gallops," or strong, race-like workouts among company, including one last week over Polytrack at Wolverhampton Racecourse, "and he's pretty straight."

In the few days before the Lane's End, Silent Times will train over the five-furlong Polytrack course at Keeneland. "I'll have him jump out of the gate Thursday," said O'Neill. "That will be enough."

As a boy growing up on a farm in County Kildare, Ireland, where his father raised cattle, sheep, "and a few horses," O'Neill said he watched the Kentucky Derby with considerable interest. He can recall Bold Arrangement, trained by Clive Brittain, coming from England in 1986 to finish third in the Blue Grass, then second behind Ferdinand in the Derby. Twenty years ago, the Blue Grass was still run just nine days before the Derby.

Other memorable instances of foreign horses arriving relatively close to the Derby include Arazi, the odds-on favorite in 1992; Johannesburg, the 2001 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner; and five horses that Godolphin Racing sent from Dubai from 1999 to 2002. None of those horses had a stateside prep during their 3-year-old season, and none finished better than sixth in the Derby.

"I've watched them all the way through since Bold Arrangement, and none of them got close," said O'Neill. "We're going to give it a shot this way."

Silent Times, a dark bay colt who stands nearly 17 hands, brings impressive bloodlines and racing credentials to the Lane's End. He is by Danehill Dancer, a son of the late pre-eminent dual hemisphere sire Danehill, and his dam is Recoleta, a full sister to Grade 1 winner Offlee Wild (both being by Wild Again out of Alvear).

Preceding the Champagne dead heat with Close to You, Silent Times finished second in a minor stakes at Newbury, then third in a Group 2 at The Curragh in a race won by Horatio Nelson, the second-highest-rated 2-year-old (behind George Washington) last year in Europe. And among the highly regarded horses trailing him and Close to You in the Champagne were Group 2 winner Cool Creek and Group 3 winner Amigoni.

Silent Times, who will be ridden by Robby Albarado in the Lane's End, is a confirmed front-runner. As O'Neill told the Racing Post: "He has a very high cruising speed, and if he gets out in front, he is hard to peg back."

Fretwell and O'Neill have had their eyes on Turfway for several months, and in fact, on the weekend of Jan. 7, they traveled from England to Turfway to inspect the Polytrack surface, which was laid last summer and first used for racing in September. Having approved of what they saw, O'Neill said he has pointed Silent Times specifically to the Lane's End.

O'Neill said he has very little knowledge of what the competition will be like Saturday. After being told the top contenders are mostly untested - the probable favorite, Strong Contender, will be making his stakes debut after opening his career with two wins - O'Neill said he is hoping for the best.

"Obviously it's going to be a matter of whether the horse is good enough, isn't it?" he said.