10/28/2004 12:00AM

Ouija Board latest to bear historic silks


GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - But for the luck of a coin flip, America's most important horse race on the first Saturday each May might be known as the Kentucky Bunbury, not the Kentucky Derby.

The fateful flip took place in 1779 on the eve of the inaugural English Oaks for 3-year-old fillies. The 12th earl of Derby and his friend Sir Charles Bunbury proposed the idea of holding a male equivalent of the Oaks and agreed to flip a coin to decide whose name the new race should carry.

Fortunately, the earl won that coin toss, and Derby, not Bunbury, is now a racing term used throughout the world.

Few families have had a longer or richer history with the turf than the earls of Derby. On Saturday, Edward Richard William Stanley, the 19th earl of Derby, will carry on that tradition when his 3-year-old filly Ouija Board carries the famous black silks and white cap of Stanley House Stud in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf.

Lord Derby, as the 19th earl is more commonly referred, inherited the title on the death of his uncle, the 18th earl of Derby, 10 years ago. A merchant banker based in London, he is the owner of the Stanley House and Stud Co. in Newmarket.

Stanley House Stud is home to the family's eight broodmares, including Selection Board, the dam of Ouija Board. The commercial policy of Stanley House Stud is to sell the colts and race the fillies. Ouija Board is the only horse Lord Derby has in training this season.

"This is the first time in over a decade we've only had one filly in training," Lord Derby said. "We had one other in this crop, but she broke a pelvis and never made it to the races. To put this into perspective, we'll have four fillies in training next year."

Ouija Board has become a pleasant surprise for Lord Derby and her trainer, Edward Dunlop. She won just 1 of 3 starts, a minor stakes worth less than $10,000, at 2.

"We knew she was pretty good, but never thought she would turn out to be this good until she showed a devastating turn of speed to win her 3-year-old debut in the one mile and one-quarter Pretty Polly this spring," the 42-year-old Lord Derby said. "All her breeding pointed to running her back at 10 furlongs in the French Oaks. But the English Oaks was also established by the 12th Earl of Derby, so understandably we were biased to go to Epsom, even though the race was at 12 furlongs. In fact, my wife was adamant that's where she run."

Ouija Board rewarded Lord Derby and his wife, Cassie, with a seven-length victory in the Group 1 English Oaks then returned six weeks later with a one-length triumph in the Group 1 Irish Oaks.

"Seeing her win the English Oaks by seven lengths was quite extraordinary," said Lord Derby. "Especially since her time was only a second slower than Warrsan won the Coronation for the boys over much firmer ground the following day. We knew then we had quite a filly."

Lord Derby's next decision for Ouija Board was more difficult: Keep her against her own kind in the Prix de l'Opera or take on the males in one of the world's most prestigious events, the Pix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp.

"In the end we decided to go for the glory and run her in the Arc," said Lord Derby. "We felt there was more honor if she placed in the Arc than had she won the Opera."

Ouija Board certainly brought honor upon herself and her connections at Longchamp, rallying from the rear of the pack to finish third in the Arc, a performance that sewed up a trip to the United States for the Breeders' Cup.

"At the beginning of the year I never even dreamed she could win an English classic or pick up prize money in three countries," said Lord Derby. "Now here we are bringing our famous colors to America and having them worn by the favorite in a race which has world-class allure. It's just an unbelievably exciting prospect."