05/24/2004 12:00AM

Guineas weekend: An upset and history


THE CURRAGH, Ireland - The weather couldn't have been better for the 2000 Guineas at The Curragh on Saturday. Bright sunshine bathed the great limestone plain in County Kildare, and the Irish, who aren't used to good weather, celebrated as if at a party. Dozens of kids chased each other around, ladies dressed sparingly to reveal their charms, and the champagne bar overflowed with revelers. So relaxed was the atmosphere that one bookie's wife, very pregnant, was seen studying a book entitled "What to Expect in the First Years" between races.

It is doubtful Aidan O'Brien shared in the bliss. He is having another tough spring, mopping up with his maiden 2-year-olds but striking out in the big races, as he did last year. His string of losers so far includes Necklace (English 1000 Guineas), Brian Boru (Ireland's Mooresbridge Stakes), Antonius Pius (French 2000 Guineas), and Royal Tigress (French 1000 Guineas), although none of them disappointed as spectacularly as One Cool Cat, a Storm Cat colt O'Brien had the highest hopes for, even singing his praise in public.

Sent off as a short-priced favorite in the English 2000 Guineas, One Cool Cat trailed in behind the rest of the field, reportedly suffering from an irregular heartbeat, possibly brought on by anxiety. But that began to smell like an excuse when the colt was scratched from the Irish Guineas with "a low-grade infection." This was a surprise since One Cool Cat, a winner of two Group 1's as a juvenile, was touted to redeem himself at 5-2 in the morning line. O'Brien's colts often become Coolmore's stallions, though, and some people were guessing the Coolmore supremos didn't want to risk any further tarnishing of One Cool Cat's reputation.

That left O'Brien with two entries, Grand Reward and Newton, neither likely to be a major player. Instead, the punters focused on the John Oxx-trained Azamour and Grey Swallow from Dermot Weld's barn. Both stabled at The Curragh, they ran third and fourth in the English 2000 Guineas at Newmarket. Grey Swallow, Ireland's leading juvenile last year, would improve off his Newmarket run, Weld said, though the good-to-firm ground was a question mark. Oxx felt Azamour, owned by the Aga Khan, would also perform fitter. Mick Kinane would be riding, too. Kinane, well into his 40's is still The Curragh's top jockey.

Leitrim House, trained by Brian Meehan, shipped in from England and attracted some money, having won 3 of his first 4 starts, but there was precious little interest in the rest of the field - Amarula Ridge, Hayburn Street (another from Weld's yard), and Bachelor Duke, a maiden after seven runs.

The early pace went at a crawl. Grand Reward made the running, followed by Leitrim House, who took command some three furlongs from home, although his jockey Steve Drowne was already on the whip.

But it was Azamour who picked up in the closing stages. Kinane tried to find some room on the rail, then moved Azamour between horses instead and again had Grey Swallow headed, just as at Newmarket. Yet the all-but-forgotten Bachelor Duke, written off at 12-1, was suddenly in gear and blazing along on the outside under jockey Seb Sanders. Bachelor Duke gobbled up the ground and had a length in hand over Azamour when he hit the wire.

It is rare for a maiden to win a classic. The last maiden to win the Irish Guineas was Ballymore in 1972, so James Toller, Bachelor Duke's trainer, was overjoyed to beat the odds. It was his first classic, as well, and especially poignant because the Duke of Devonshire, the horse's owner, had died not long ago.

Next for Bachelor Duke will probably be the St. James's Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot.

O'Brien fared better on Sunday when Powerscourt, in his first outing of the season, demolished his opponents with a front-running show in the Tattersalls Gold Cup. But the day's centerpiece was the Irish 1000 Guineas and the appearance of Attraction, an Efisio filly by Flirtation, who had won the English equivalent and was shooting for a double. Eight other fillies had tried since 1922, but none had succeeded.

Attraction proved the exception to the rule. Under a brilliant ride from Kevin Darley, she took to the front early and stayed there, with plenty left in the tank when Alexander Goldrun mounted a challenge in the stretch. That made Attraction 7 for 7 and his trainer, Mark Johnston, based in England, very happy.