05/26/2003 11:00PM

O'Brien gets the last laugh


DUBLIN, Ireland - The bookies huddled under their bright yellow, blue, and red umbrellas at The Curragh in County Kildare last Saturday as 16 colts vied for the Irish 2000 Guineas, gunning for a winner's purse of about $200,000. Rain had soaked the turf for nearly a week, so persistently that bulrushes were growing in a bog near the starting gate, and the trainers who escorted their horses onto the course, Aidan O'Brien among them, got caught in a sudden downpour that had them sprinting for the cover of the grandstand.

O'Brien is Ireland's kingpin, of course, and he was shooting for his third straight triumph in the Guineas. Other top trainers such as Dermot Weld and John Oxx exercise their stock at The Curragh, but O'Brien has a state-of-the-art private compound in Tipperary, where the security is tight and the information doesn't flow freely. The funds at his disposal are vast, partly because the profits from stallion operations aren't taxed in Ireland, so Coolmore Stud, Ballydoyle's parent organization, can pocket the money it earns on such fabled sires as Sadler's Wells, who covers more than 100 mares a season.

Entenmann's Bakery sponsored the Guineas and displayed banners that advertised a "Slice of America." (The company also brokered a maiden race named in honor of that great baker, Sara Lee.) O'Brien had five colts entered, all beautifully bred - two by Danehill and the others by Danzig, Desert Prince, and Seattle Slew, who sired Tomahawk, the 7-2 favorite. Though O'Brien is a thoroughly decent fellow, and very gifted at his job, he has so many advantages over his peers that some bettors deliberately root against him, as they might against the talent-rich Yankees.

No Irish Classic would be complete without a controversy, and in this case John Gosden, one of the United Kingdom's finest trainers, supplied it, complaining to the press about the entry procedure for the Guineas. The initial stage closes more than 13 months before the race date, very early compared with the English 2000 Guineas where the deadline is March of a colt's 3-year-old year. As a result, colts who don't compete as 2-year-olds, like Gosden's promising Ikhtyar, often fail to be nominated. Gosden could have supplemented Ikhtyar for about $35,000, but he found the fee "extortionate" and raised a stink about it.

One trainer who did advise his owners to pay the supplement was Paul D'Arcy from Manton, England. D'Arcy has a small, select stable of about 30 horses, and Indian Haven is among his stars. Indian Haven ran in the British 2000 Guineas at Newmarket in early May and "got murdered," as D'Arcy put it. Indian Haven was shut down twice, so completely he never had a chance. At The Curragh, the big question was whether the colt would handle the soft, testing ground. His pedigree, D'Arcy felt, implied that he would.

Certainly Indian Haven was full of himself going into the gate. He had a choice post position, too, slotted in the 3 hole. The Curragh's racing strip is wide and roomy, but there is still be a huge bias for the horses inside whenever the stalls are set up by the grandstand. After the break, Tomahawk and Mick Kinane dashed to an early lead, but the lead vanished quickly. Tomahawk doesn't get the mile distance, it seems, and ultimately retreated to the rear of the pack and finished 11th, putting a grin on the bookies' faces.

The Curragh's mile course is right-handed, with a single turn known as "the elbow." Here Indian Haven began to assert his claim, but he suffered a bad moment when Johnny Murtagh on Saturn cut him off. For a few seconds, it looked as if Indian Haven might suffer a repeat of his bad luck at Newmarket, but John Egan, his rider, took control. Indian Haven recouped and showed a blistering turn of foot in the stretch, refusing to be intimidated by the stiff uphill climb over the last three furlongs. He was a winner at 8-1.

O'Brien's fortunes altered considerably on Sunday, starting with the Tattersalls Gold Cup, a Group 1 race for older horses worth about $150,000. The crowd appeared to believe the bloom was off the Ballydoyle rose, though, because it let Black Sam Bellamy, the morning-line pick at 3-1, drift up to 6-1. A host of raiders from England, including two challengers from the highly regarded Godolphin team, suggested a competitive affair. Burning Sun, trained by the celebrated Henry Cecil, captured the public's fancy at 7-4, but Black Sam Bellamy simply demolished the field, kicking into gear after the turn and never glancing back.

That victory was sweet for O'Brien, but the fans didn't hold out much hope for his two fillies in the 1000 Guineas. Six Perfections, from the classy French barn of Pascal Bary, was a prohibitive 1-3 shot at post-time. Like Indian Haven, she had fared poorly at Newmarket, where she had a terrible trip in the English 1000 Guineas, shuffled to the back and having to circle a wall of horses to make her bid. Despite taking the scenic route, she came home with a terrific burst of speed and narrowly missed at the wire.

Bary was apparently furious with Thierry Thulliez, his jockey, and the Niarchos family, who own Six Perfections, chose to replace Thulliez with Murtagh, a big-race veteran currently second to Kinane in The Curragh's jockey standings. Ireland's tracks ride differently than any others in Europe, often being heavier, deeper, and trickier, and it is generally believed that an experienced Irish rider can add a length or even more to any performance, while also anticipating trouble before it hits him.

Sadly for Six Perfections and her connections, that proved to be untrue in the 1000 Guineas. In fact, Murtagh let himself get trapped on the rail, in a sort of Ballydoyle box. L'Ancresse, O'Brien's pacemaker, held onto the lead, while her stablemate Yesterday, brilliantly handled by Kinane, kept Six Perfections pinned inside. Six Perfections couldn't go forward, nor could she swing wide until Kinane decided to move, which he did at the last minute. The timing was perfect. Murtagh followed immediately, but it was too late, and Six Perfections was nipped at the wire again, losing by a head.

Yesterday, at 11-2, pleased the Ballydoyle stalwarts who backed her, and the bookies established her as the favorite for the English Oaks at Epsom Downs in June. As for O'Brien, he surely returned to Tipperary a much happier man than he had been in the rain on Saturday, while Bary was left to endure another round of nightmares on his flight back to France.