10/21/2001 11:00PM

Irishman O'Brien ready for road game


ELMONT, N.Y. - The other fellow's game.

Racing at the top level is difficult enough when you are playing your own game. When you are playing the other fellow's game, and have to travel far to play it, you are at a decided disadvantage.

Aidan O'Brien, the brilliant young Irish horseman who has trained a remarkably successful stable in recent years, has yet to score a Breeders' Cup victory in seven attempts. He assembled his strongest team to date for Saturday's 18th running - including an Epsom Derby winner, an outstanding sprinter, and a prospective 2-year-old champion, - and has been pointing them specifically for this goal. But he admits he would be delighted if one of them won.

He came extremely close last year in the Classic. Giant's Causeway, a very good 3-year-old, broke from the outside post position in a field of 13 and just missed, losing to Horse of the Year Tiznow by a neck while finishing in front of Captain Steve, Albert the Great, Lemon Drop Kid, Fusaichi Pegasus, and Cat Thief.

The O'Brien-trained Galileo is probably a better horse than Giant's Causeway. He is an Epsom Derby winner, with all that implies, and he was strong enough to come back, three weeks later, to win the Irish Derby. He followed with an impressive victory over older horses in Ascot's King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.

Galileo was narrowly beaten by Fantastic Light, the King George and Queen Elizabeth runner-up, in the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown, but that is the only blot on his record. If he can handle the switch from grass to dirt, a major factor, Galileo will be hard to beat in the Classic.

Like Galileo, the O'Brien-trained Johannesburg, Europe's top 2-year-old, has impressive credentials. He is undefeated in six starts and runs in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile off Group I victories in the Phoenix Stakes in Ireland, the Prix Morny in France, and the Middle Park Stakes in England. America's Officer appears to be an exceptional individual, too, and this confrontation in the Juvenile could be one of the highlights of the afternoon.

O'Brien may have his best shot in the Sprint, with Mozart, who comes off decisive Group 1 triumphs in the July Cup and the Nunthorpe Stakes.

"He is a big, scopey, good-looking horse with natural speed," O'Brien said. "It's been our experience that horses with speed handle the dirt better. He inherits his speed through his dam, who is by Spectacular Bid."

Mozart must be at his best to win because the competition is outstanding. Kona Gold is bidding for a second consecutive win in the Sprint while Delaware Township, El Corredor, Caller One, Squirtle Squirt, and Left Bank are rapid horses of quality. The Sprint looks like a shootout.

The competitive tone of the Breeders' Cup should be sounded at the outset. The Distaff for fillies and mares at nine furlongs on the dirt has attracted such proven performers as Flute, winner of the Kentucky Oaks and Alabama; Exogenous, winner of the Beldame and the Gazelle; Fleet Renee, winner of the Ashland and the Mother Goose; Pompeii, winner of the Personal Ensign and the Rare Treat; Miss Linda, winner of the Spinster and the Lady's Secret; Tranquillity Lake, winner of the Clement Hirsch and the Palomar Handicap; and others.

Spain, a Thunder Gulch filly owned by The Thoroughbred Corporation and trained by D. Wayne Lukas, paid $113 when she upset last year's Distaff. She may be ready for more theatrics because Lukas, who has a record 16 Breeders' Cup victories to his credit, notes she has never looked better than she does now.

"I don't know if it equates to a great performance," Lukas said. "But she looks a picture. I thought she ran a big race in the recent Beldame, when she was bothered in the stretch run and was forced to steady. ... She might have won with a better trip and yet she needed the race. I look for her to give a good account in the Distaff. It was a tough race last year with such good ones as Riboletta, Surfside, Heritage of Gold, and Beautiful Pleasure, but it seems to me the competition this year is even deeper."