11/02/2006 1:00AM

Ouija Board set for victory


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The gaggle of drab-dressed men milling outside the fenced-off European shipper barn on the Churchill Downs backstretch definitely was not from Breeders' Cup Ltd., lacking the signature purple windbreakers. Nor were they ESPN producers, or glad-handing bloodstock agents. This was the assembled press corps from Europe, mostly English, and the reporters had one task: Get a word with the lads who had just taken Ouija Board out Tuesday morning for her first Churchill exercise.

It may require an Englishman, maybe an English expatriate, to fully grasp the Ouija Board thing. Racing is woven so much deeper into that country's fabric. We have Barbaro, filtering into the national consciousness after tragedy struck. The English have larger-than-life equine heroes each season - like Ouija Board. On Aug. 5 in the Nassau Stakes at Goodwood, when she thrust her nose across the finish inches ahead of Alexander Goldrun, the din of the crowd might have been heard halfway across the Atlantic.

"She's become a national hero for everyone," said jockey Frankie Dettori, who was aboard for that victory and is tasked with helping Ouija Board try to win her second Filly and Mare Turf in the Breeders' Cup on Saturday. "That was the race of the year at Goodwood. It might not have been the best form of her career, but the way she showed that determination to win was amazing. The feel of the crowd was incredible."

Ouija Board plays a different game than we do in the United States. Lava Man, considered by some people as the best older horse in the country, traveled to the Japan Cup Dirt last winter and finished 11th. And some pundits have identified a Dubai syndrome: An American horse that ships to Dubai for the big races in March may be gutted the rest of the year, they warn us.

But Ouija Board has kept an itinerary like a United Nations secretary general, travelling from England last summer to New York in the fall, then on to Japan in November with a zip over to Hong Kong a couple weeks later. Ouija Board's 2006 started in Dubai, then it was back over to Hong Kong, home again to England for the summer, and now this, the final legs of her journey. First comes Saturday's Filly and Mare Turf, Ouija Board's third, then one more trip to the Far East, and then, before she turns 6, it will be over. Ouija Board turns from racemare to broodmare. And when she does, it will be with a gold-plated resume. So far she has nine wins, six of them in Group or Grade 1's, in four different countries.

"This mare travels so well," said her trainer, Ed Dunlop. "She has a great temperament. This is her 11th airplane trip. She doesn't tire; she thrives on the traveling."

Dunlop's father is the famed English trainer John Dunlop, and Ed Dunlop, 38, got serious about horses early, taking out his first license to train 12 years ago, and taking over the Gainsborough operation of Sheikh Maktoum al Maktoum after Dunlop's boss, the trainer Alex Scott, was murdered. Dunlop oversees 100 horses, and it was not until he had Ouija Board working for her 3-year-old season that she began to separate herself from the rest of them.

"It was in the spring of her 3-year-old year in preparation to run in an Oaks trial that she started to work at a very high quality," Dunlop said. "That's when I began to see."

Soon, everyone else saw, too. Ouija Board won the English Oaks by seven lengths, won the Irish Oaks by a length. She finished a close third of 19 in the Prix De l'Arc de Triomphe that fall, then came and took the Filly and Mare Turf at Lone Star as an odds-on favorite. The 2004 season nearly was perfect - but not 2005. Ouija Board started the year with a splint-bone injury, battled a quarter crack, finished a distant seventh in her first 2005 race, and came out of it with a stress fracture.

"Credit to the owner," said Dunlop. "Having had the horse of the year, it would've been easy to retire her and send her to the breeding shed."

Yes, the owner. Ouija Board might be the people's horse, but she is not owned by those cheering masses. Her owner is Lord Derby, Edward Richard William Stanley, the 19th Earl of Derby in a line of the English peerage tracing to the 15th century. Lord Derby has but a handful of broodmares. The colts they produce generally are sold, the fillies kept to race. It is fair to say the focus is quality.

Instead of taking his mare home, Lord Derby sent her back for more racing, and this last phase of her career has been almost as sweet as 2004. Perhaps not quite back to her best, and at a disadvantage when Intercontinental stole off to an easy lead, Ouija Board finished second in the 2005 Filly and Mare Turf, but six weeks later she won the ultra-prestigious Hong Kong Vase, and in seven starts this year she has raced against the best horses in Europe - Dylan Thomas, David Junior, Shirocco, Electrocutionist - never finishing worse than third in a race where she had a fair trip.

"Every race this year has kind of been, 'Let's see how she gets on and we'll go from there,' " said Dunlop. "She's defied us on that."

Tuesday morning, as the English princess strolled toward the Churchill track for the first time, she looked perfectly at home, utterly at ease. Her coat has held its shine, her bones their proper flesh, and the report to the turf writers from the head lad, Robin Trevor-Jones, was pure sunshine. Had Ouija Board traveled well? Yes, said Trevor-Jones, fabulously. Would the turf course suit her? Yes, it felt perfect.

"Do you back her?" ventured one scribe, asking if Trevor-Jones, who has traveled the world with Ouija Board, bet on her when she raced.

"She's always looked after me, let's put it that way," said Trevor-Jones, breaking into a grin. "She doesn't owe me a penny. But it's sad, really, since this will be her last Breeders' Cup."

Dunlop had used that word, too, sad, but Trevor-Jones still wore his grin when he said it. A horse like Ouija Board brings joy, not tears.