10/12/2006 11:00PM

Marketing can trump horse sense


George Washington, though out of an Alysheba mare, seems more suited to a mile on turf than the BC Classic.P

To dirt, or not to dirt? That is the question John Magnier is always asking himself this time of year.

His odd, some might say bewildering, decision to run Dylan Thomas in the Jockey Club Gold Cup as a testing ground for the Breeders' Cup Classic, as well as his intimation that George Washington might run in the Classic instead of the Mile, must be regarded in the light of Coolmore's ultimate raison d'etre as a breeding operation.

That is where the big money is in the Thoroughbred business, and that is where John Magnier and Co. direct most of their energies, be it in the sales ring at Keeneland, their Ballydoyle training center in County Tipperary, or on the racetracks of Ascot, Longchamp, and the Curragh.

The presence of Dylan Thomas at Belmont last Sunday is a case in point. A Danehill 3-year-old, he had already proven himself as the winner of the Irish Derby and the Irish Champion Stakes. Every breeder in Europe knew what he was capable of on turf and could well judge his potential as a stallion. The possibility of a Breeders' Cup Classic victory, or even a second-place finish, was too tempting in regard to the recognition such a performance would bring to the American breeding industry.

And so Dylan Thomas was, in a racing sense, sacrificed on the altar of greed, undone as much by Coolmore's supreme desire to improve stud value as by the extraordinary talents of Bernardini. At the same time, his participation in the Jockey Club Gold Cup was a win-win situation for Coolmore in a breeding sense. In losing the race, he lost nothing in the eyes of European breeders, as it was his first expedition on dirt. Dylan Thomas, it was announced on Thursday, will run again next year, when it is a certainty that he will be kept to turf in an effort to nudge his stud value up a bit higher.

The Dylan Thomas scenario is the same one Coolmore has employed in recent years with Giant's Causeway, Galileo, and Oratorio. They were successful with Giant's Causeway when he finished second by a neck to Tiznow in the 2000 Breeders' Cup Classic. It has been estimated that that effort boosted his stud value by $25,000. Indeed, it was so attractive to American breeders that Magnier decided to stand Giant's Causeway, a son of Storm Cat, at Coolmore's Kentucky operation in Versailles.

A year later with Galileo they were not so successful. The winner of both the Epsom and Irish derbies as well as the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, all at 1o1/2 miles on turf, Galileo was sent out for his first start on dirt in the 1o1/4-mile Breeders' Cup Classic following his epic and losing battle with Fantastic Light in the the 1 1/4-mile Irish Champion Stakes. Whether that duel took its toll on Galileo or whether he just couldn't handle dirt will never be known, but as a son of Sadler's Wells he was always going to prefer 12 furlongs to 10, as well as turf to dirt.

Galileo's sixth-place finish in the Classic didn't harm his reputation with European breeders one whit. He now stands at Coolmore Stud in Ireland, where he is the hottest young stallion in Europe.

There was sense, however, in Coolmore's running Johannesburg in the 2001 Juvenile. As a Kentucky-bred son of Hennessy out of an Ogygian mare, Johannesburg always held the potential to act on dirt and he did. Having wowed American breeders, he now stands at Coolmore in Kentucky.

The chances of Oratorio in last year's Classic fell somewhere between those of Giant's Causeway and Galileo. A son of Danehill, he had won the Eclipse Stakes and the Irish Champion Stakes, both at 1 1/4 miles, before finishing a somewhat unlucky fourth in Newmarket's Champion Stakes over the same distance. As he was a 10-furlong specialist, his presence in the Classic made more sense than that of Galileo, but he failed to handle the dirt and beat only two horses home, clearly a spent force. He now stands at Coolmore in Ireland.

With George Washington, it is likely that Coolmore will once again take a wrong turn if they try him on dirt for the first time in the Classic. While George Washington, an Irish-bred son of Danehill, is out of a mare by Alysheba, he appears to be very much a turf miler. His trainer, Aidan O'Brien, wasn't even sure he would stay that far in his victorious 3-year-old debut, the 2000 Guineas on Mayo6, at which time George Washington was already being nominated to Europe's best sprint races. While possessed of a world of speed, he may lack the stamina to last the Classic's distance.

A workout scheduled for Friday the 13th on Southwell's fibresand track in England was canceled when fog closed the nearby airport and prevented O'Brien from flying. Maybe Mother Nature is trying to tell Coolmore something. Having failed with Galileo, Oratorio, and Dylan Thomas in their attempts at dirt, they would be wise to keep George Washington to a mile in the Breeders' Cup, just as they did with their outstanding 2002 miler, Rock of Gibraltar.

And even if he acts on dirt, what chance would George Washington have in the Classic with the world's best horse, Bernardini? That is a question beyond "To dirt, or not to dirt?"