04/30/2002 11:00PM

Invasion of Derby snatchers?


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It is usually a pain to be placed on hold, but there is at least one exception. Those asked to wait while calling Aidan O'Brien's office at the Ballydoyle training center will find themselves entertained by John Lennon singing "Imagine."

This is not entirely off the wall. Imagine is the name of the filly who won the 2001 English Oaks for the Ballydoyle-Coolmore team. Had she been called Mandy, Barbara Ann, or even Judy Blue Eyes, the musical selection would not have been nearly so inspired.

Lennon was just coming to "You may say that I'm a dreamer/But I'm not the only one" when O'Brien came on the line, interrupting a perfectly good song.

"They both cantered seven furlongs on the grass this morning before they left," the trainer said. "They're doing well, although we've had some rain the last few days. In a perfect world, I'd liked to have done a bit more with them. But it can't be helped."

O'Brien had just dispatched Johannesburg and Castle Gandolfo to Shannon International Airport on the west coast of Ireland for their nonstop flight to Lexington. After 8 1/2 hours in the belly of a BAX Global Freight DC-8, they landed at Blue Grass Field. It was 5:40 p.m., Eastern Daylight Time, four days and 20 minutes away from the 128th Kentucky Derby.

"Seven thousand feet of runway is about as short as we like to go into," said BAX Global pilot Larry "Mugs" Mueggerborg, a 33-year veteran of the skies, shortly after they arrived. He was asked about the length of the landing strip at Blue Grass.

"It's 7,003-feet long," Mueggerborg replied. "But as slow as we were going, it was no big deal. Touch down was 128 knots, and that's real easy to stop as soon as you go into reverse."

Sounds routine, and it usually is. There are times, though, when things can go terribly wrong.

"I had a trip once out of Sydney, Australia, with six horses, and one of them kicked his way out of his stall," Mueggerborg said. "They put him down. They didn't have a choice. But it was scary. You're going through 20,000 feet, and if that horse puts his foot through the side of an airplane, something bad is going to happen."

Mueggerborg now hands over the stick to Gary Stevens and Jerry Bailey, pilots of a slightly different stripe. Between them, they have won five Derbies. Stevens, who replaces the suspended Mick Kinane on Johannesburg, laid the groundwork for the mount four years ago when he agreed to swing by Ireland on his way home from winning the Dubai World Cup aboard Silver Charm. It was late March of 1998.

"They asked if I'd come to Ballydoyle and work one horse, Saratoga Springs, to see if I thought he'd do for the Derby that year," Stevens said Wednesday afternoon.

"That one horse turned into 27. I kept looking at my watch, worrying about missing my plane. Aidan said not to worry, they had a helicopter waiting. Everything was going okay until we hit a fog bank."

Stevens ended up taking a commuter flight from Dublin to Heathrow, a speeding limo to the international terminal, and then a United flight home to L.A. Once in the first class cabin, he noticed he was the only one wearing boots and pants splattered with flecks of rich Irish sod.

"I don't think I smelled real good, either," Stevens said.

Since then, he has not used O'Brien as a travel agent. Stevens was all ears, however, on Tuesday afternoon when the low-key trainer gave him the word on Johannesburg.

"It's the first time I've ever heard real excitement in Aidan's voice," Stevens said. "By the end of the call, the hair was standing up on the back of my neck."

Johannesburg was destined to show up for the Derby from the moment he burst away from the pack in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Belmont Park last October. If nothing else, he was obligated to prove the Juvenile was no fluke. Failing that, he will be greeted with open arms by those who take great pleasure in reciting the pitiable Derby record of Breeders' Cup winners. They are 0-forever.

"I didn't ride the Juvenile," Stevens said. "I watched it on a monitor. Watched in awe. I could see Johannesburg was a winner at the half.

"If he is traveling the same way at the quarter pole in the Derby, then my job is done," he added. "If he's not, you'll know it long before that."

Mugs Mueggerborg has already put himself on the spot with his co-workers at BAX Global.

"Everybody in the company wanted to know the names of these two Derby horses," the pilot said. "Depending on how the trip went, they were going to bet for or against them."

The variables are plentiful. Almost too numerous to list. Based on the journey, however, what was Mueggerborg's tout on the Irish?

"For," he replied.