03/23/2005 1:00AM

Harty's Arabian night story


ARCADIA, Calif. - Eoin Harty was asked how he would feel if Ruler's Court returned from obscurity to beat Roses in May, Congrats, and Lundy's Liability in the $6 million Dubai World Cup on Saturday night.

"That would be fantastic," Harty said. "Stranger things have happened."

No argument there. After winning the Norfolk Stakes by 14 lengths in November of 2003, Ruler's Court was ranked among the leading 2-year-olds on the planet and loomed a solid contender for classics the following year. His owner, Sheikh Mohammed, decided to pass the Breeders' Cup Juvenile that fall, despite the fact that it was being run over the same course and distance as the Norfolk, and ordered him into winter quarters in Dubai to prepare for a run at the 2004 American Triple Crown.

Well, you know how the old saying goes: "Want to make Allah laugh? Announce your plans." (There are also Protestant, Hindu, and Unitarian variations on the theme.) Ruler's Court was injured, required surgery, and never raced at age 3. He finally came back to the races this winter in Dubai, going unplaced in a prep for the World Cup. As far as his chances on Saturday, you can just about name your price.

Since Harty continues to train horses for Sheikh Mohammed, it does him very little good to speculate on what might have been had Ruler's Court pursued a more traditional career path in the States. So he doesn't. Besides, Harty already has watched one of his former 2-year-old stars go on to win the Dubai World Cup, when Street Cry scored in 2002.

When it comes to the Dubai World Cup, Harty has had more than enough experience to know what it takes to win. As assistant to Bob Baffert, he was on the scene with three starters and won with two of them - Silver Charm in 1998 and Captain Steve in 2001 - while witnessing several other runnings as a key member of Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin Stable operation.

This time around, Harty is staying put at Santa Anita, where he is busy with the horses of his growing public stable. He harbors the fond hope that someday he will return to the World Cup with a starter of his own, and based on a client list that includes Aaron Jones, Stan Fulton, Barbara Walter, and Sheikh Mohammed, the dream seems reasonable.

In the meantime, he'll always have 1998. That was the night - March 28 to be precise - Harty watched a horse reach deep within his Thoroughbred heart to win a race that seemed lost before it began.

Silver Charm was America's reigning champion of his division, hero of the 1997 Kentucky Derby, and favored in the third running of the Dubai World Cup, then valued at $4 million. Unfortunately, as the hour of the race drew near, the big, gray colt was a hangdog shadow of his usually robust self. Harty recalled the scene as he prepared to transfer Silver Charm from their international quarantine barn to the holding facility near the Nad Al Sheba grandstand.

"When we loaded him in the van, he was about ready to go to sleep," Harty said. "I would describe him as alarmingly quiet. I checked his temperature, he was fine, so we took him over there. Then Bob took one look at him and said, 'What the blank's wrong here?' "

Harty was as mystified as his boss.

"Of course, you can't run on Bute or Banamine in Dubai, so if something's there, it's there," Harty said. "No hiding it. Bob had me check his temperature again - of course we couldn't find a thermometer - and said that somehow we had to get him on his toes."

At this point, Harty and Baffert applied a little old-fashioned, seat-of-the-pants horse training. They turned a cold hose on Silver Charm, then whacked his massive rump with a couple straps of the rub rag. Silver Charm sighed.

"It wasn't hopeful," Harty said. "Bob said, 'This could get ugly. Let's take our whipping, then I'll meet you at the bottom of the grandstand right after the race and we'll get out of this place.' Well, the rest is history."

In what was clearly the best race of his career, Silver Charm tracked American stakes star Behrens through the stout early pace, then faced challenges by the French horse Loup Savage and the English favorite Swain through the long stretch.

"Gary Stevens told me later that he was really quiet when he got on him," Harty said, "but when he turned to face the starting gate, it was like he underwent some sort of metamorphosis. The game face came on, and as far as Gary was concerned, it was suddenly a matter of how far they were going to win by. I kind of wish he could have relayed that information to the trainer and assistant trainer. I watched from the finish line, and saw him get headed twice, then a whole bunch were heading for the wire. I didn't even know he won."

But he did, by a nose.

"Believe me, there was no trainer, no assistant trainer involved in that one," Harty added. "It was all horse, and what a horse he was. Pure courage."