02/22/2002 12:00AM

If O'Brien is thinking Derby, he isn't saying


NEW YORK - The dominance of Aidan O'Brien-trained 2-year-olds in 2001 was such that half of the 14 highest-rated juveniles on the International Classification were trained at his yard in Ballydoyle, Ireland.

Moreover, the only Irish-trained juveniles that appear on the Classification are the 12 trained by the master himself. But perhaps the most impressive statistic is that O'Brien nearly swept the complete list of nine European Group 1 races for 2-year-old colts, winning eight of them.

The leader of the pack is, of course, Johannesburg. Undefeated in seven races, this Kentucky-bred son of Hennessy accomplished something no other juvenile had ever managed before. He won Group or Grade 1 races in four different countries; Ireland's Phoenix Stakes, France's Prix Morny, England's Middle Park Stakes, and America's Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

After such a season, one might be justified in thinking that Johannesburg's rating of 126 on the International Classification looks a little lean. Arazi, after all, was pegged at 130, but then, he probably received a few extra points from the sheer brilliance of his Breeders' Cup Juvenile victory back in 1991.

O'Brien has nominated 10 to the Triple Crown, and it is a further indication of the strength and depth of his barn that there are four ex-O'Brien-trained horses on that list: Camp David, Mutinyonthebounty, and Wiseman's Ferry - all now with Niall O'Callaghan - and Monarchoftheglen, now with Beau Greely.

Will any of Ballydoyle's young stars actually put in an appearance at Churchill Downs on Derby Day May 4? Ever the man of mystery, O'Brien is not letting anyone know one way or another. He was recently quoted in the British press to the effect that if he does send something, Johannesburg would be his first choice. On Wednesday, co-owner Michael Tabor said that Johannesburg would run in the Gladness Stakes, a seven-furlong, Group 3 race for 3-year-olds and up to be run at the Curragh on April 7.

The word "genius" that is frequently appended to O'Brien's name would deserve to become a permanent fixture, as in Aidan O'Brien, Genius, or Aidan "Genius" O'Brien, should Johannesburg win the Derby off that single prep.

The Gladness is a good race as early-season Group 3's go. Two years ago, O'Brien used it as a winning 2000 Guineas prep for Giant's Causeway. Johannesburg, like Giant's Causeway in 2000, would receive at least seven pounds from his older rivals in that race, which is invariably run on soft ground.

That is hardly an ideal prep for the Kentucky Derby. It should be a rule of thumb that at least two races are required for European horses trying the Kentucky Derby, with one of them coming in the United States. That was the road taken by Clive Brittain in 1986 with Bold Arrangement, who followed a third in the listed Doncaster Mile (now no longer open to 3-year-olds) with a close third in the Blue Grass Stakes before running second in the Derby. That is easily the best Derby effort by a foreign invader.

It defies logic to think that even someone of O'Brien's talent can succeed where the likes of Francois Boutin and Godolphin have failed, even in a year in which America's best 3-year-olds look like a weak bunch.

And then there is the question of stamina. Johannesburg's damsire was a speedy sort who managed to win at 1 1/8 miles. While Johannesburg would be facing few horses that are actually bred to get 10 furlongs in the Derby, he appears to be much more suited to the straight mile of the 2000 Guineas, which will be run at Newmarket on the same day as the Derby.

The Gladness would set him up perfectly for the Guineas, and the Guineas would set him up perfectly for the Irish 2000 Guineas two weeks later and then the St. James's Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot on June 18. If that is the road O'Brien chooses to take, he would then have the option of trying Johannesburg in the big European weight-for-age events at either a mile or 1 1/4 miles, after which the Breeders' Cup Classic would become an option.

Those are the issues the Ballydoyle brain trust will be dealing with during the next two months. In the meantime, O'Brien has a number of other 3-year-olds with classic aspirations.

Hawk Wing, winner of the Group 1 National Stakes, has twice beaten stablemate Sholokov, the subsequent winner of Italy's Group 1 Gran Criterium, and is another ideally suited to one Guineas or another. But Hawk Wing had previously been beaten by an even more promising Guineas prospect, Rock of Gibraltar. A Danehill colt, Rock of Gibraltar cruised home in the Group 1 Grand Criterium at Longchamp before overcoming trouble to win England's definitive juvenile race, the seven-furlong Dewhurst Stakes.

O'Brien holds European Derby hopes for High Chaparral, a son of Sadler's Wells who won the Racing Post Trophy, along with the first three finishers in the 1 1/4-mile Criterium de Saint-Cloud: Ballingarry, a Sadler's Wells half brother to two-time Group 1 winner Starborough; the Gone West colt Castle Gandolfo; and Black Sam Bellamy, a full brother to Galileo.

With a stable like that, it looks as though Irish eyes at Ballydoyle will be smiling throughout 2002.