08/11/2004 11:00PM

Meet Mr O'Brien - and the woman behind him

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - The exercise rider took Mr O'Brien up the horse path Thursday morning for a first look at the Arlington racetrack. The pair went onto the turf course for an easy gallop around the dogs, Mr O'Brien craning his head at the unfamiliar landscape. The rider had no instructions, though Mr O'Brien's engagement in the Arlington Million was two days away. She needed none.

Robin Graham, the woman on horseback Thursday, has been Mr O'Brien's trainer since October. The end of 2003 was nothing special. But when Mr O'Brien returned this spring, he had become a terror. He won the Henry Clark, then the Grade 2 Dixie at Pimlico, setting a nine-furlong course record. He was blocked in the Grade 1 Manhattan and finished third; trapped when a closing second in the Grade 1 United Nations. On Saturday, Mr O'Brien seems to be one of the best of 13 horses entered in the Arlington Million.

So here is the story of Mr O'Brien's turnaround: There really is none.

"I just kind of did the same things that had been done before," Graham said.

Yes, this is Graham's mechanical, down-to-earth mind. She even has childhood aptitude tests to prove it. Graham, middle-aged and practical looking, had no family background in horseracing. But she loved it. She worked on the track - real work, grinding-out-a-living kind of work - for most of her adult life. She took a winter off to assemble electronics on a factory line.

"It was fun at first," said Graham. "It was like building models. Then I realized the women next to me had been doing the same thing for 18 years."

There was a six-month stint as a shop foreman. Mostly it has been horses. Graham has had a trainer's license since 1982. She's trained her own for 10 years. When the Skeedattle Stable of Lou Rehak and Willy White gave her seven horses, including Mr O'Brien, it brought her stable up to 23. You cannot train 50 horses at once when you want to gallop several of them yourself.

"I do really enjoy getting on them," Graham said. "I can't imagine being one of those guys sitting up on the hill watching their horses train."

Mr O'Brien, an Irish-bred, had begun his career with Michael Dickinson, almost mythic in reputation. For Dickinson, Mr O'Brien cruised to victory in two straight starts when he made the races in the winter of 2002 at Fair Grounds. He won the Woodlawn Stakes at Pimlico that spring, but lost his form and ended the year on sour notes. In 2003, Mr O'Brien's owners, Rehak and White, moved Mr O'Brien to trainer Tony Dutrow, who thought he had a dirt horse. Mr O'Brien ran five times for Dutrow, winning twice, but never got back on turf.

Mr O'Brien was creeping toward his 5-year-old year, looking much like a talented horse that had failed to pan out when Graham entered the frame.

"He didn't look comfortable to me. He didn't look happy," she said. "I figured it wouldn't hurt to stop on him, turn him out, and see what happened. I think the horse had gotten discouraged. If they beat their head against the wall, they're going to give up."

When Mr O'Brien came back from his winter freshening, "he didn't seem different at all," Graham said. One day, Graham got Mr O'Brien off the main track and onto the Pimlico grass course.

"As soon as I took him out there, he perked up. He was saying, this is what I really want to do."

If the Dixie seemed flash-in-the-pan, Mr O'Brien's Grade 1 losses have validated the race. He has turned in four consecutive peak efforts, but Graham said she hates the word "bounce." And in Mr O'Brien's spin around the turf course Thursday, he looked like a horse sitting on a big race.

Graham had a Grade 3 win a few years ago. Second money in the United Nations remains the biggest purse she's taken home. It's $600,000 to the winner Saturday, and Graham will be yelling - but no harder than for anyone else in the barn.

"Five-thousand-dollar claimers are trying just as hard," she said.

Graham would know. She has felt it herself.