07/12/2001 11:00PM

Galileo, O'Brien alone at the top


One might be forgiven for thinking that Aidan O'Brien is drinking his Guinness from the Holy Grail these days.

O'Brien, a 31-year-old Irish trainer, reached unheard of heights two years ago when he won 13 juvenile group races in Europe, three of them with 2-year-old champion Fasliyev. At the same time he was engineering the championship sprint season of Stravinsky.

Last year he trained Minardi to the European juvenile championship as well as guiding Giant's Causeway to five consecutive Group 1 victories, but he has surpassed himself this season with a yard full of potential champions.

Galileo probably needs no introduction in America. He was the overpowering winner of both the Epsom and Irish Derbies, taking them so convincingly that he has been installed as the 1-2 favorite for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, a race in which he will be meeting the best older horse in Europe, Fantastic Light.

Like the Epsom and Irish Derbies, the King George is run at 1 1/2 miles, yet O'Brien feels that Galileo's best distance lies between a mile and 1 1/4 miles.

To that end, he will drop Galileo back to 10 furlongs for the Irish Champion Stakes, then down to a mile for the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes before taking dead aim at the Breeders' Cup Classic at 10 furlongs.

Galileo has an enormous stride, and he eases into it at the push of a button from Michael Kinane. Obviously he can stay, but it is his speed that most impresses O'Brien.

So convinced is he that Galileo's best distance is something short of 1 1/2 miles, that O'Brien wanted to send him from the Epsom Derby directly to the one-mile Sussex Stakes on Aug. 1.

But even O'Brien must answer to a higher power, so that idea was abandoned when co-owner (with Michael Tabor) and Coolmore Stud boss John Magnier, ever conscious of breeding value, decided that Galileo must go for a second classic in the Irish Derby and then the King George. Victories in those races would establish his pre-eminence at the classic European distance against both his own generation and against older horses.

However, it is the Breeders' Cup Classic that Coolmore most wants to win. It is a race that narrowly escaped the Magnier/Tabor/O'Brien triumvirate last year when Giant's Causeway was outgamed by Tiznow. His second-place finish, however, had the effect of instantly raising his stud fee from $82,500 to $110,000. That figure could pale before Galileo's fee if he continues to fulfill his vast promise.

Although Galileo is the stable star at O'Brien's Ballydoyle yard, he is in good company, to say the least, with May and June having provided several Ballydoyle group race winners.

Modigliani, a Danzig half-brother to Rodrigo de Triano, kicked things off when he took the Group 3 Tetrarch Stakes, beating stablemates and subsequent Group 1 winners Mozart and Black Minnaloushe. Galileo followed with a Group 3 score at Leopardstown on the same day that the O'Brien-trained Rose Gypsy won the French 1000 Guineas.

On May 26, O'Brien exceeded even his high standards when he trained the first three home in the Irish 2000 Guineas in Black Minnaloushe, Mozart, and Minardi. The very next day he had the first-, third-, and fourth-place finishers in the Irish 1000 with Imagine, Toroca, and Sequoyah.

The victory of the filly Dietrich, a Storm Cat half-sister to Spinning World, versus colts in the five-furlong, Group 3 Ballyogan Stakes served as a table-setter for O'Brien's big weekend at Epsom, when Imagine came from last to first in the English Oaks and Galileo stormed home in the Derby.

A few days later, King Charlemagne took the Group 3 Ballycorus Stakes, then Black Minnaloushe made it two Group 1's in a row with his victory in the St. James's Palace Stakes on the Tuesday at Royal Ascot, the same day that Landseer gave O'Brien an unexpected 20-1 tally in the Group 3 Coventry Stakes for 2-year-olds.

On Wednesday of the Royal Ascot meeting, Mozart added the Group 3 Jersey Stakes. The next day O'Brien unveiled a speedy 2-year-old when Johannesburg landed the Group 3 Norfolk Stakes.

On July 1, an hour before Galileo's Irish Derby heroics, O'Brien had the first two in the juvenile Group 3 Railway Stakes in Rock of Gibralter and Hawk Wing. This past Thursday, Mozart established himself as Europe's leading sprinter with a runaway 3 1/2-length triumph in the Group 1 July Cup at Newmarket. A Danehill colt, Mozart is now being seriously considered for the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Skeptics might say that O'Brien's success can be laid at the doorstep of his chief owners, Tabor and Magnier, and it is true that he gets much of the pick of the Coolmore crop. That crop is produced by stallions like Sadler's Wells, Danehill, Grand Lodge, Spectrum, and Peintre Celebre, each of whom cover an average of about 150 mares annually, with the offspring of Fasliyev, Montjeu and Giant's Causeway still to come. But this is a man who has a sixth sense about Thoroughbreds.

Hear him speak of Galileo, and you get an idea of how his mind works: "He could gallop on water," O'Brien said, his faith in the animal untainted by a hint of doubt. Thus far, Galileo has done nothing to make disbelievers of anyone privileged enough to have seen him run.