04/11/2002 11:00PM

Horse tales from the Emerald Isle


FETHARD, Ireland - The walls of McCarthy's Bar in this horse crazy town are decorated in keeping with the spirit of the land.

"This place is so horsey, on a crowded night you could get kicked," proclaimed Annette Murphy, whose ancestors established McCarthy's five generations ago.

Fair warning, but play it right, and you'll feel no pain no matter how hard the blow. Looming over the bar, behind the taps pulling draught of Smithwicks, Harp, and Carlsburg, among other brews, is a sign insisting "Have a Guinness to-night."

So you do, under the stern gaze of Dr. Vincent O'Brien himself, the retired squire of Ballydoyle, pictured in a faded color photograph alongside The Minstrel, winner of the 1977 Irish Derby at The Curragh. Oh, right. He won the Derby at Epsom that year as well.

A cascade of racing badges dangles from a hook, souvenirs from meets at Punchestown, Leopardstown, Phoenix Park, and Cheltenham, where the Irish racing fans descend upon England's Cotswolds in force each March for the world's greatest jumping festival. A victory for the Irish at Cheltenham is always cause for celebration at McCarthy's.

Which must explain the stain on the ceiling, just next to the bare fluorescent bulb that sheds just enough light to separate the fish from the chips. Did something explode?

"It was Johannesburg," said Annette's son Vinny, gazing aloft. "When he won the Breeders' Cup in New York, the place went crazy. Some guy grabbed a bottle of champagne and sprayed it straight up. You can still see the dent where the cork hit."

Somehow the news was comforting. American racing likes to fancy itself a worldwide attraction, but there is only minimal evidence beyond the attention paid to the Kentucky Derby. Here, then, was proof. At 9:30 p.m. last Oct. 27, in walled, medieval town once conquered by Oliver Cromwell, a crowd of die-hard Irish racing fans spilled out of McCarthy's and into Main Street, celebrating the victory of their hometown hero.

Fethard is located not far from Ballydoyle training center, where Johannesburg trained for the Breeders' Cup and is training at this moment for a possible run in the Kentucky Derby. There is something just right about watching a big race under such circumstances. Never mind that McCarthy's black van advertises undertaking services along with its bar and hotel. ("We wine you, dine you and bury you" is how Annette Murphy bills her businesses.)

The place is obviously blessed. How else can you explain the off time of the 3:10 from Aintree on the day before the Grand National, when Father Tom Breen from the parish across the street wandered in a minute late. A rowdy horse had broken through the barrier, delaying the start just enough for the padre to settle into his usual chair beneath a TV screen and a racing print of Foxchapel King. The 3:10 commenced at 3:11.

"Divine intervention," whispered Annette Murphy from behind her hand.

Of course, a first visit to any place beyond one's own backyard can be disorienting. Thank goodness the Irish speak horse, otherwise there would might have been serious confusion.

A pint, thank goodness, is still a pint, but the ideal serving temperature of a fresh Guinness is no higher than 8 degrees Celcius (according to the Guinness website), which is 46.4 Fahrenheit, which shoots a hole in the idea of room temperature beer. It was much warmer than 46 in McCarthy's.

The coin of the realm is now the Euro, as the Irish pound is being phased out of circulation along with other continental currencies. Being worth around 88 cents to the dollar, this made conversion tolerable to a Yank. There's comfort in the illusion that things cost a bit less than they seem.

Then, there are the Irish roads. Driving is done to the left and steering wheels have been diabolically installed on the right, while distances are framed in kilometers, which means speed limits are listed likewise. That is where the Irish sense of humor comes in with a great hoo-hah. Speed limits, my left foot!

The question was posed, and it was a fair one, to hackney owner John Ryan as he transported a brace of white-knuckled Americans from Cashel to Fethard for dinner one fine evening.

"John, are there any famous Irish Formula One drivers?"

Ryan had just lowered his cab to the road around a set of double "S" curves, over a stone bridge no more than four paces wide, and down a lane designed to comfortably accommodate even the widest vehicles manufactured in the 17th century. An egg truck and two SUVs were missed with inches (check that, centimeters) to spare.

As a sign with a "Z" loomed, which apparently meant "increase your speed," Ryan considered the query while tuning in an Irish country song on the radio and without braking for irony.

"Let's see," he said, glancing over his shoulder and accelerating. "There's Eddie Irvine, but he's from the north. So, no, I don't guess we've got one right now."

Johannesburg will do. He could be fast enough. And yes, there will be a Derby party at McCarthy's. Post time, if you are in the neighborhood, will be about 11 p.m. on May 4. Call John Ryan. He'll get you there on time.