10/22/2002 11:00PM

O'Brien gives Irish reason to party

Email

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Never mind the Breeders' Cup. It has been a good week for Aidan O'Brien already.

O'Brien could win the Classic with Hawk Wing, the Turf with High Chaparral, and the Mile with Rock of Gibraltar at Arlington Park on Saturday, and still the taste of victory on Tuesday in the High Court of Dublin would linger sweetest of all.

That is where Aidan Patrick O'Brien - horseman turned environmental activist - won a landmark decision that effectively put on hold the construction of an industrial incinerator just down the road from his legendary Ballydoyle training center in County Tipperary.

With the backing of his patrons at Coolmore Stud, O'Brien and his attorneys have been fighting the good fight all year long, ever since it was learned that approval for the incinerator had slipped through the local planning board without so much as a whisper of protest. At one point, the soft-spoken O'Brien suggested that he might move his multi-million dollar operation to the United States if the polluters set up shop next door. No one took it as an idle threat, even though a reporter for the Guardian news service noted that O'Brien "could probably train classic winners from a hill farm in the Cairngorms."

"There's no doubt in anyone's mind that without Aidan and the Coolmore money, the incinerator plans would have gone ahead," said Vinnie Murphy, whose family owns McCarthy's Bar and Restaurant in the nearby town of Fethard.

Because it doesn't take much of a reason to celebrate anything in Ireland, McCarthy's played host Tuesday night to a crowd from Coolmore and Ballydoyle, intent as they were upon marking the significance of the High Court ruling. It was a festive evening, with just the right amount of Guinness involved, and it served as a proper warm-up for Saturday night. That's when the faithful will convene at McCarthy's once again to witness the international telecast of the Breeders' Cup.

Expectations will be high, and why not? Two years ago, O'Brien nearly brought home the Classic with Giant's Causeway. Tiznow's nose was all that prevented it. Then, last year at Belmont Park, the victory of local hero Johannesburg in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile turned McCarthy's upside down.

"There was dancing on the bar," Murphy recalled. "The last time the place was in such a state was 15 years ago over Barry McGuigan."

For those not up to speed on the Irish sporting scene, McGuigan was Ireland's homegrown featherweight champion of the world. Just last spring, the gallant run of the Irish team in the World Cup got the blood boiling in Fethard, as well. But as the Coolmore company town, with much of the local economy dependent upon the Thoroughbred industry, Fethard has a lot at stake on Saturday at Arlington.

"Actually, it's the bookies who make out best, don't they," Murphy said. "When it comes to something like the Breeders' Cup, the Irish tend to bet with their hearts instead of their heads. They can't all win, can they?"

Don't put it past them. High Chaparral, winner of the Epsom and Irish derbies, will be playing his own game going 1 1/2 miles on grass. Rock of Gibraltar is a monster at a mile. The only thing new for him will be an extra turn, but his preparation at Ballydoyle has accounted for that. And Hawk Wing is the ultimate sixth man, with 1 1/4-mile skills that have convinced O'Brien he can make the transition to dirt in the Classic.

The Ballydoyle horses arrived at the Arlington quarantine facility Tuesday afternoon and were greeted with very familiar weather. Back home in Tipperary, Irish winter was bearing down.

"You wouldn't want to be going out in a T-shirt," Murphy said of Wednesday's south central Irish climate. "I've gone to my wool hat for the first time this year. Four or five degrees it is, with a serious wind chill."

Hopefully, he was speaking in Celsius, which puts the Fethard thermometers at a very Chicago-like 40 degrees.

About the same time, still flush with the news from High Court, O'Brien hopped a flight from Shannon International Airport, bound for O'Hare.

"I talked to the lads this morning, and they said all the horses arrived in good order," O'Brien told a caller as he prepared to board. "They just had a bit of a walk today. I'm sure I'll go visit them first thing after I get there tonight."

It has been a year since O'Brien was in the U.S. for the triumphant 2001 Breeders' Cup. He had reason to come last May, when Johannesburg and Castle Gandolfo ran in the Kentucky Derby, but the trainer stayed home to watch Rock of Gibraltar and Hawk Wing take on the English 2000 Guineas. Obviously, O'Brien knew what he was doing. The Irish colts ran up the track at Churchill Downs, while at Newmarket, the Rock and the Hawk finished one-two.

"This will be my first time to Arlington and Chicago," O'Brien said. "I'm looking forward to it."

So is the gang at McCarthy's.

"If one of them should win on Saturday, give us a call," Vinnie Murphy said. "You can listen in on the celebration."