07/06/2003 11:00PM

If Weld travels, he has a hot horse


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - After an Internet search, the last piece of the puzzle finally fell into place. It happened just last May, at a little Irish racecourse called Naas. There he was, full grin beaming on a glorious Irish afternoon, posing in the saddling ring alongside Bono and Robert DeNiro.

It was Dermot Weld, all right. The same Dermot Weld who has made the racing world his oyster, winning major events on practically every continent where there are major events worth winning. Two Melbourne Cups, a Belmont Stakes, European classics, and big pots in Asia. The guy obviously gets around.

And now Weld is rubbing elbows with celebrities - or was DeNiro chumming with his new pal Dermot? Whichever the case, the scenario rings true, especially in the wake of the trainer's latest U.S. invasion. After winning the Matriarch Stakes last December, and then backing it up with victory last Saturday in the $750,000 American Oaks, the respected Irishman henceforth will be addressed by his freshly minted nickname: Hollywood Weld.

The victory of Dimitrova in the 1 1/4-mile Oaks came as no surprise to those who watched Weld win the 2002 Matriarch with Dress to Thrill, or the 1990 Belmont Stakes with Go and Go, or either of his Melbourne Cups with Vintage Crop in 1993 and Media Puzzle in 2002. Jockey agent Jim Pegram was certainly paying attention.

"He doesn't leave home unless he thinks he can win," said Pegram, who represents David Flores, Dimitrova's rider.

Weld expressed such sentiments himself barely a month ago when he shipped to England from his stables near The Curragh to win a stakes race at the high-falutin' Royal Ascot meet. His colt Time's Eye, racing in blinkers for the first time, popped at 15-1 in the Wolferton Rated Stakes. The Guardian quoted a politely remonstrative Weld as saying, "People know we don't just come here for the sunshine."

The sun was out again last Saturday, as Weld tried to protect himself from Southern California's withering ozone layer beneath the shade of a snazzy American Oaks cap (free to the 16,783 fans on hand, as well) while saddling Dimitrova in a crowd of 14 runners. Her owner, Joseph Higgins of Galway, Ireland, was more concerned about such things as ground and distance than he was the weather.

"She's all quality, that's for sure," said Higgins. "We're just hoping she can stay the trip."

Dimitrova certainly looked the part of a classic filly - she was beaten less than a length in the Irish 1000 Guineas - and appearances were not deceiving.

Sporting a rich blood bay coat with black points and mane, she paraded with a hip-hop walk to go along with the sleek well-being that is typical of a Weld runner on the road. Apparently, she also took Flores's breath away when he beheld her for the first time in the ring. Body language is universal.

"I could see she was ready to run a big race," Flores said.

Good thing, too, because Flores was on Dimitrova only because the local stewards required Weld to honor his original call. The trainer named his contract rider, Patrick Smullen, at entry time when Smullen became available at the last minute, which is perfectly acceptable in Ireland and England. The Hollywood stewards said fine, but according to American practice it would cost Mr. Higgins a double jockey fee to ride Smullen and un-hire Flores, which could have ranged from the winning $45,000 to the minimum of $105, were Dimitrova to be worse than fifth.

Clearly, Weld thought she could win, and it wasn't worth the extra $45,000 to make a point. Flores, a man who has won races in England, retained the ride.

"Mr. Weld's last words to me were, 'Don't mess it up,' " Pegram said. "It was the first time I ever won anything in front of the stewards."

In the end, Weld had nothing but praise for Flores's deft handling of the filly. For nine furlongs, she cruised along at a strong pace not far behind the leaders, then shot to the lead in a heartbeat to win by two over the ambitious Sand Springs. The Bob Baffert fillies Atlantic Ocean and Santa Catalina, followed by the next best European, Golden Nepi.

"She could be back for the Queen Elizabeth at Keeneland, and we'd also look at races like the Yellow Ribbon and the Matriarch," Weld said. So fair warning. After settling that jockey deal, there are no American mysteries left. Weld could be really dangerous now.

No more home-cooked meals

Krone's back. That was the problem, and that's what's happening on Wednesday at Hollywood Park in the second race, four months and one day after she went down hard at the start of a hillside race at Santa Anita Park. To describe her as excited is an understatement. As for me, it's back to the Stouffer's frozen dinners.