05/31/2002 12:00AM

Maktoums will joust with O'Brien


While Sunday's French Derby appears to be a ceremony inducting the undefeated Act One into the pantheon of great Prix du Jockey-Club winners of the last 20 years (Montjeu, Peintre Celebre, Suave Dancer, Darshaan, Caerleon), next Saturday's $1.75 million Epsom Derby is up for grabs.

It should come as no surprise that Aidan O'Brien, who will saddle four in the French Derby at Chantilly on Sunday, has the two Epsom Derby favorites at his Ballydoyle yard. Hawk Wing and High Chaparral are on offer at prices as long as 2-1 and 5-2 respectively, but the seeming shortness of those odds is in large part because of the O'Brien factor. As with Henry Cecil before him, almost any horse O'Brien enters is going to be bet down to something less than its true value.

Hawk Wing, who was a fast-closing second when Rock of Gibraltar won the 2000 Guineas, and High Chaparral are considered so close together that even O'Brien's first-call rider Michael Kinane is having difficulty choosing between them. The British bookies, ever alert to a wagering opportunity, have opened a book on which one Kinane will select as his Epsom Derby mount. They list Hawk Wing as Kinane's 1-3 favorite with High Chaparral at 9-4. Johnny Murtagh will ride whomever Kinane dismisses.

Both their Derby prices and their Kinane prices may raise some eyebrows, especially among students of pedigree. The Woodman colt Hawk Wing has only been as far as a mile once, in the 2000 Guineas, while High Chaparral, by Sadler's Wells out of a mare by Darshaan, is coming off a pair of 1 1/4-mile scores, the latest in the Group 3 Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial, the race used as a winning prep by the last two Epsom Derby winners, Galileo and Sinndar.

Hawk Wing and High Chaparral might have made the Epsom Derby their own personal tea party had it not been for the deep pockets of the Maktoum family. In fact, this year's Derby could have been missing two of its best prep race winners had the Maktoums not stepped in.

When Fight Your Corner won the Group 3 Chester Vase on May 7, his trainer Mark Johnston bemoaned the Derby's nomination system for which the first entry stage had closed on Dec. 1, 2000, when this year's 3-year-olds were still yearlings. Owners did get a second chance to nominate on April 10 of this year, but that date was three weeks before the first major Derby preps were run.

Fight Your Corner had not been nominated by his owners at Greenland Park Ltd., and so faced a prohibitive $130,000 supplementary fee for Europe's most important race for 3-year-olds.

If Johnston, who sits atop the British trainer standings this season, was upset about the Fight Your Corner situation, he was jumping mad after his Bandari annihilated the Lingfield Derby Trial field on May 11 by 13 lengths. By Alhaarth out of the former Phil Johnson trainee Miss Audimar, Bandari's owner Ahmed Al Rostamani had also neglected to get him into the Derby.

And on top of it all, Johnston had been stewing over the same situation with Simeon, his winner of the Sandown Classic Trial, whose owners at Jumeirah Racing had left him out of the Derby nominations.

That last problem was resolved to a certain extent when Jumeirah put up a $56,000 supplement to get Simeon into the French Derby, but Fight Your Corner and Bandari seemed to be out in the cold.

Enter Hamdan Al Maktoum, who bought Fight Your Corner and who will ante up the necessary $130,000 due Saturday, June 1, to enter the Epsom picture. No sooner had Bandari crossed the line at Lingfield than Sheikh Mohammed was opening his checkbook. The deal was done within 48 hours and Bandari will also be supplemented for the Derby as the property of Sheikh Mohammed's son, Hamdan. Both horses will remain with Johnston.

Epsom officials, who have done a good job of reviving the Derby's fortunes in recent years with the help of Vodafone's sponsorship, can heave a sigh of relief, but one wonders where this year's Derby would be if not for the Maktoums.

The ruling family of Dubai will also be represented on June 8 by three or four Godolphin runners, none of whom has to be supplemented. They are Moon Ballad, the front-running winner of what is historically the most telling Derby prep, the Group 2 Dante Stakes; Naheef, the likely mount of Frankie Dettori; Al Moulatham, the eight-length winner of a 1 1/2-mile allowance race in his lone start at Newmarket last month; and possibly Dubai Destination.

Whoever comes out on top at Epsom next Saturday will have a hard time living up to the reputations of Galileo and Sinndar. Both of them went on to defeat older horses in major Group 1 races, Galileo in the King George, Sinndar in the Arc. Those two ended a string of four subpar Derby winners - Shaamit, Benny the Dip, High-Rise, and Oath - a quartet that had been preceded by Lammtarra, who went Galileo and Sinndar one better by winning both the King George and the Arc.

Current best Epsom Derby odds: Hawk Wing 2-1; High Chaparral 5-2; Bandari 11-2; Fight Your Corner; Naheef 12-1; Al Moulatham, Moon Ballad, Dubai Destination 20-1.