06/30/2004 11:00PM

Mr O'Brien full-fledged turfer


OCEANPORT, N. J. - Just a few months ago, it would have been difficult to imagine Mr O'Brien emerging as a top contender in Grade 1 turf races this summer. After all, before this spring he hadn't even run on the grass since June 2002. But given his recent development, he's a serious threat to win Saturday's Grade 1, $750,000 United Nations at Monmouth Park.

"I didn't get him until October, and the previous trainer [Tony Dutrow] just had him on the dirt," said Robin Graham, who trains Mr O'Brien for the Skedattle Stable. "I just kept doing the same thing, but when I ran him in January I noticed he was running with his head up high. He just didn't look to me like he was happy on the dirt."

Graham gave Mr O'Brien six weeks off, but when he returned she knew something still wasn't right.

"I get on a lot of my horses myself, and when I was galloping him I could tell his hocks were bugging him," she said. "When he switched to turf I figured it would be easier on him, and it's obvious that's what he wanted to do."

Mr O'Brien actually began his career on the turf, for trainer Michael Dickinson, and he made an immediate impression, winning consecutive races on the Fair Grounds lawn and capturing a stakes race, Pimlico's Woodlawn Stakes.

When he switched to the Dutrow barn he raced exclusively on the dirt. He was actually quite successful on the main track, never finishing worse than second in five starts. But when Graham put him back on the grass, he really took off.

Mr O'Brien has put up three straight triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures, the first coming in the Henry Clark Stakes at Pimlico, his first turf try in nearly two years. That led to a breakthrough effort in the Grade 2 Dixie, where he beat a deep group and stamped himself as one of the top older grass horses in the nation.

Graham gave Mr O'Brien a tougher assignment for his next and most recent test, the Grade 1 Manhattan. He finished third, 1 1/4 lengths behind the victorious Meteor Storm, whom he'll face in the United Nations. But Graham said she was very pleased with that effort, blaming traffic troubles for the loss.

"He was boxed in there, and Ramon [Dominguez] had to back him all the way out of the hole," she said. "It wasn't anyone's fault, it was just the way it shaped up."

As is the case with most extended route races, the outcome of the 1 3/8-mile United Nations figures to hinge at least partly on the pace scenario. Last year's winner Balto Star all but won the race early on, when jockey Jose Velez Jr. was able to dictate a modest tempo on a clear lead, and he's back to defend his title. Graham, however, took note of the fast five-furlong workout put in by Meteor Storm on Monday and figures he'll also be prominent in the early stages of race.

"Meteor Storm, with the work he had, he'll be cranked up," she said. "I hope we'll be sitting just off those two."

Captain Red will need to ration speed

Trainer Dimitrios Synnefias hesitated before entering Captain Red in the $65,000 Longfellow Stakes, a supporting event Saturday on Monmouth's United Nations Day card.

Synnefias wanted to make sure the race was not overloaded with speed. A 7-year-old, Captain Red will come winging out of the gate, and Synnefias says he doesn't want too much competition for him in the early stages.

The Longfellow will be the second race on the comeback trail for Captain Red, who returned after a nine-month layoff in the John B. Moseley Breeders Cup Handicap at Suffolk Downs.

The comment line for that race indicates that the rider "tried to rate" Captain Red, but there was no holding him back. He zipped the first quarter in 21.86 seconds and was starting to fade turning for home in the six-furlong race.

"The race was good," said Synnefias. "He went too fast. He needed that race."

Captain Red finished 18 lengths behind the winner, Gators N Bears.

The competition will be easier in this spot.

"This will be much better," said Synnefias. "He's a very fast horse, and he can run 22 [seconds for the first quarter]."

Alex's Pal figures to be one of the pace factors. Trainer Bruce Levine will add blinkers to Alex's Pal, who posted a win and a third in his last two outings in money-allowance races at Delaware Park. Alex's Pal ran fourth in last year's Longfellow.

Canadian Frontier pulled off a 20-1 upset in the Grade 3 Bold Ruler Handicap at Belmont Park on May 8.

Smok'n Frolic on hand for Molly Pitcher

Smok'n Frolic, trained by Todd Pletcher, arrived at Monmouth Park on Thursday as the field for Sunday's Grade 2, $300,000 Molly Pitcher Breeders' Cup Handicap continued to assemble.

"She'll go to the track Friday morning and then school in the paddock around 11:15," said Anthony Sciametta Jr., Pletcher's assistant at Monmouth.

La Reason and Bare Necessities, one of the likely favorites in the Molly Pitcher, flew in Tuesday from Kentucky. A field of six, including Yell, Fircroft, and Pocus Hocus, is expected. Entries will close Friday.

Wild Chick sharp in workout

Wild Chick, an easy winner in her debut, stayed sharp with a 48.20 seconds half-mile drill Wednesday morning at Monmouth.

She tied for the fastest work of the morning among the 23 at that distance.

A 2-year-old homebred daughter of Forest Wildcat for Eb Novak's New Farm, Wild Chick impressed with a front-running victory June 4.

"She looks like a pretty nice filly," said trainer Ben Perkins Jr. "She worked well and she's run well. It's always nice to have one that looks okay."

Perkins has not decided on a next start, although Monmouth's $60,000 Colleen Stakes on Aug. 8 is an option.

"It's hard to plan for a conditioned race and train them up to one because you don't know if the races are going to go. You know the stakes are going."

- additional reporting by Mike Farrell