10/20/2003 12:00AM

Little filly faces tall order


ARCADIA, Calif. - There she was, the winner of the American Oaks, dancing what looked to be an improvised Irish jig around her Santa Anita tow ring while her traveling partner, Joe Mulholland, gave her just enough line to enjoy herself.

"It's good to see," Mulholland said. "When she acts like this, you know she's coming around."

Dimitrova, the little filly from County Kildare, has been in California since Oct. 2, stalking the ground for the Irish invasion to come. There have been 23 European winners of Breeders' Cup races - four from Ireland - and Dimitrova could be Ireland's best chance for a fifth when she goes for the $1 million Filly and Mare Turf in the World Thoroughbred Championships on Saturday.

It is a tall order, but Dimitrova has beaten older mares before, such as her win in the Flower Bowl Handicap at Belmont Park. Her race on firm Hollywood Park turf in the American Oaks bodes well for a run on Santa Anita's table-top ground.

Besides, Dermot Weld, her Curragh-based trainer, rarely sends horses abroad if they don't have a serious chance. Year in and year out, Weld-trained runners pop up in more ports than the Merchant Marines. New York, London, Paris, Toronto, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Los Angeles - it doesn't seem to matter. Weld's horses hold their form through all manners of jet lag and climate change.

As for Dimitrova, she has the County of Louth in her corner as well. Mulholland hails from Ireland's smallest county, barely 300 square miles worth, hard by the Irish Sea on the northeast coast of the republic. It's largest town is Dundalk (pop. 30,000), halfway between Belfast to the north and Dublin to the south.

While Dundalk has its own racecourse - as does any respectable Irish town - County Louth might be better known as the home of The Corrs, one of Ireland's best rock bands. There is the breathtaking scenery of Carlingford Lough, where the legendary giant Finn McCool roamed; the River Boyne port town of Drogheda; and several relics down near Ardee, where ancient Ireland lives in the Jumping Church of Kildemock or the Barnaveddog Standing Stone.

The son of a shoe factory worker, Mulholland did three months in his mid-teens with local Dundalk trainer Bunny Cox. He was hooked for life. That summer he went to the Irish Derby meeting at The Curragh and never went back.

"I rang my mother and told her I wasn't coming home," Mulholland said. "She had to come down and bring me my clothes. I'd only brought enough for the weekend."

Thirty years later, Mary Mulholland's boy is in the thick of the world's greatest international racing event. Before joining the Weld team three years ago, Mulholland spent 26 years working for trainer Kevin Prendergast, who is one of Ireland's most successful trainers. Mulholland took his turn as a jockey during that time, riding for three years against future Irish champions Mick Kinane and Pat Eddery.

"My first winner, I beat Kinane in a photo," Mulholland said. "Before I was through I broke a leg, a shoulder, ribs, nose, toes - nothing serious. Then seven years after I quit, I took out a license for a day to ride in an amateur race. Just wanted to do it. Won off by 15. It was never that easy before."

As is the European custom, Mulholland learned the job from the ground up, grooming and exercising the horses in his care, and getting the occasional ride in the afternoon. Once he got the jockey out of his system, Mulholland ascended to the role of traveling head lad - equivalent to an American assistant trainer. Prendergast sent him far and wide with Oscar Schindler, the two-time winner of the Irish St. Leger, to compete in major events in Dubai, Melbourne, and Tokyo.

Oscar Schindler, a massive stayer, could probably fit Dimitrova in his pocket. When Dimitrova arrived at Hollywood Park last July, fresh off a near miss in the Irish 1000 Guineas, local horsemen noticed on her almost dainty profile.

"They were kind of amazed because she was so small-looking, but she won so easy," Mulholland said. "She quickened up well that day. That's one thing she does - she'll quicken up well and then keep galloping for you. For a small filly she's got a very big stride."

Tom Halpenny wasn't fooled. The veteran California blacksmith had Dimitrova pegged from the moment he nailed on a set of fresh racing plates last summer at Hollywood Park.

"She's big where you need her to be," Halpenny said. "Big in the back, big in the gaskins. Walks broad, like a good horse, with a presence about her."

Like Mulholland, Halpenny hails from County Louth, as does local exercise rider Andy Durnin. Durnin, who was in the spotlight when he did the sometimes difficult morning work aboard Fusaichi Pegasus, will gallop Century City for trainer Beau Greely in his preparation for the Breeders' Cup Mile.

Having these Louthmen so far away from home is a coincidence roughly equivalent to having three guys from Albuquerque at the Grand National at Aintree at the same time. Whether it qualifies as an omen remains to be seen, since Dimitrova still has her work cut out against the likes of Tates Creek, Islington, Heat Haze, and Voodoo Dancer.

"She's a lovely filly, and she seems to be coming up to the race good," Halpenny said. "I just hope it's a good omen for Joey."