11/08/2002 1:00AM

O'Brien runners can't catch a break


Kieren Fallon and Michael Kinane are on the verge of clinching the national riding championships in Britain and Ireland, respectively.

With this Saturday the last day of flat racing remaining in England, both at Doncaster, Fallon has a healthy 18-victory margin over his nearest rival Richard Hughes, 148-126. Kinane, however, is in a tense battle with Johnny Murtagh, over whom he holds a slim 76-75 lead in Ireland. Both Murtagh and Kinane will be employed by trainer Aidan O'Brien in the Criterium de Saint-Cloud in France on Saturday, but will return to the Emerald Isle to duke it out for the title at Leopardstown on Sunday, the final day of the Irish flat season.

It is quite remarkable how both Fallon and Kinane can remain atop their national rankings after a year of crisscrossing Europe and traveling around the globe to Dubai, Hong Kong, Japan, and America. One wonders how they manage to retain their energy following such a rigorous, self-imposed annual schedule.

Could it be that they are always fresh on their travels because of the naps they take in the starting gate? A few winks in the confines of the "starting stalls," as they are called in England and Ireland, and they are ready for that arduous flight to their next port of call.

Unfortunately, nodding off as a million-dollar race is about to go off is a one-way ticket to disaster, as Fallon and Kinane discovered on Breeders' Cup Day.

Any chance Rock of Gibraltar might have had in the Mile was virtually lost at the start as Kinane walked the world's most accomplished Thoroughbred out of the gate. Later, Kinane did Hawk Wing no favors by falling asleep at the switch as the gate sprung open for the Classic.

In between the Mile and Turf, Kinane on Tomahawk and Fallon on Hold that Tiger broke in the air in the Juvenile. Fallon proceeded to ride Hold that Tiger around the two-turn 1 1/8-mile race as if it were being run on a straight course over which it made little difference if he was parked wide.

O'Brien would very likely have won not one but three Breeders' Cup races this year if Rock of Gibraltar and Hold that Tiger had broken like professional racehorses and not like donkeys. Yet the blame for their failures does not rest with Kinane and Fallon alone.

In fact, it is O'Brien who must bear the brunt of the blame for the woeful starts his horses produced at Arlington Park. He must know by now that races in America start a bit more quickly than they do in Europe. Pascal Bary certainly does, as he and his rider Thierry Thulliez got Domedriver out of the gate in good order on his way to victory in the Mile.

So, too, does Luca Cumani, who schooled the notoriously slow-starting Gossamer out of the gate again and again before her appearance in the Filly and Mare Turf. She reponded by breaking seventh on her way to a solid fifth-place finish.

If Rock of Gibraltar and Hold that Tiger had broken seventh in their races, is there any doubt that they would have been victorious? O'Brien warded off criticism in his postrace news conference when he said that it would take a few starts in America before a horse can learn how to break alertly, American style.

But the efforts of Bary and Cumani with Domedriver and Gossamer belie that jerry-built bit of blarney. "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" was good advice 2000 years ago, and it applies just as well in today's international racing scene.

In terms of slow starts, Europe finds itself isolated. Races in South America start as quickly as they do in North America, as do races in Hong Kong and Japan. One need look no further than the pitiful performances of European-trained sprinters in recent Dubai Golden Shaheens, Hong Kong Sprints, and Breeders' Cup Sprints to see how far behind European trainers are in the art of the break.

Slim U.S. showing for Japan Cup

But at least European trainers are sending their horses to run in foreign races, and that is more than can be said of their American counterparts.

The first list of invitees to the Japan Cup and the Japan Cup Dirt include just three horses based in the United States, and none of them ranks among the leaders of their divisions.

Sarafan, beaten into fourth by 68-1 New Zealand import Master Belt in the Morvich Handicap last week, is the lone American invitee to the Japan Cup, which will be run this year at Nakayama on Nov. 24 at 1 3/8 miles while the grandstand at Tokyo undergoes refurbishment.

That allowance winner Abreeze and Reba's Gold, the winner of an ungraded stakes at Fairplex, are the only two Americans in the Japan Cup Dirt on Nov. 23 is even more mystifying. That race will be run at a reduced

1 1/8 miles, a distance that suits almost every horse in the American handicap division. With a purse of $2 million, American trainers should be flocking to Nakayama this year for the Dirt.

Yes, O'Brien, Fallon, and Kinane may have missed the break in the Breeders' Cup, but American trainers are missing the boat when it comes to racing in foreign countries.