09/08/2003 11:00PM

A place where O'Brien's unbeatable


DUBLIN, Ireland - Few trainers own a racetrack the way Aidan O'Brien owns Leopardstown, near Dublin, the site of last Saturday's Irish Champion Stakes, a $1 million-plus Group 1 race for 3-year-olds and up. O'Brien has produced winners there at a 29 percent rate since 1999, more than double that of his closest competitor, Dermot Weld, and the rate jumps to an astounding 41 percent when Michael Kinane is in the saddle.

Those numbers rightly intimidate out-of-towners, who worry that the Ballydoyle team has an unfair home-field advantage. That was Darryll Holland's fear as the Champion Stakes approached.

Holland, a leading British jockey, accused Tom Burke, Leopardstown's manager, of watering the track to please O'Brien. August was an unusually dry month in Ireland, and that had left the racecourse firm and fast - conditions that O'Brien's star, High Chaparral, doesn't like. High Chaparral, who took the Irish Derby and the Breeders' Cup Turf last year, is among a tiny handful of 4-year-olds that Ballydoyle has decided to keep in training this season rather than retire to stud at Coolmore, a risky proposition. But High Chaparral had already suffered a shoulder injury in the spring, and O'Brien wasn't going to run him in the Champion unless the ground was "safe."

Falbrav, Holland's mount, had won on soft ground, but Falbrav truly excelled when the ground was on the fast side - as it had been before the watering - so Leopardstown's policy struck Holland as an act of blatant favoritism toward O'Brien.

"Everybody's entitled to an opinion," Burke said. "It's fairly normal for Irish courses with watering systems to want the ground good-to-firm, with as little jar in it as possible." Safe, in other words.

O'Brien was so anxious he waited until Saturday morning to confirm High Chaparral's participation. That scared off the punters, who believed High Chaparral was just warming up for the Prix de l'Arc de Triumph next month, and they let the odds slide out to 4-1. Falbrav was installed as the second favorite at 5-2, despite the fact that Alamshar, the favorite, had beaten him soundly in the King George at Ascot. Falbrav had an excuse, though, in that Holland's ride had probably cost him a length or two.

For Alamshar, heavily supported at 11-10, it had been a dream summer. After his victory in the Irish Derby, he overcame a sore back to win the King George, and he was reported to be in perfect health for the Champion. Luck smiled on him, too, when his jockey, Johnny Murtagh, battling a weight problem, took a holiday by the sea and shed enough pounds to be in the irons. The next stop for Alamshar was supposed to be the Breeders' Cup Turf, where his connections hoped he would duplicate High Chaparral's success.

Along with the principals, there were two fillies in the mix, both with Group 1 credentials. Vintage Tipple, a bargain-basement purchase at about $20,000, was the surprise winner of the Irish Oaks, while Michael Stoute's classy Islington had recently won the Yorkshire Oaks. Godolphin was represented, as well, with Moon Ballad, a gifted but erratic colt. The only sure loser in the field was France, a speed horse entered by O'Brien as a pacemaker for his stablemate.

The weather turned warm and sunny at Leopardstown on Saturday afternoon, with a drying wind blowing across the course. That was good news for Falbrav, but it increased O'Brien's anxiety. He walked the track, still described as good-to-firm, and found it fairly quick toward the middle - and becoming quicker by the minute. Meanwhile, some heavy hitters were prowling the betting ring in search of bookies brave enough to accept their wagers on Alamshar - one of roughly $40,000, two of about $30,000 - even though the colt preferred 1 1/2 miles to the Champion's distance of 1 1/4 miles.

The race began as expected, with France shooting out of the gate as singlemindedly as a greyhound chasing a rabbit. Moon Ballad, a natural front-runner, dropped into the second spot, while Alamshar and High Chaparral were a little farther back. Falbrav seemed unruly, and Holland had some trouble getting him to settle at the rear of the field. For a while, it looked as if Frankie Dettori on Moon Ballad might steal the race, cruising past France on the turn for home, but Moon Ballad soon ran out of gas, and Alamshar got down to business.

Alamshar launched his patented stretch run, and it appeared as if he would once again shift into an extra gear. But the gears locked up on him this time, and when Murtagh looked over his shoulder, he saw High Chaparral looming large. Kinane had his whip out and was driving High Chaparral along the rail when Falbrav came at him, trying to squeeze through on the inside. Kinane wouldn't have it, though. He switched his whip hand from left to right, smacked his mount, and High Chaparral drifted closer to the rail, effectively shutting down Falbrav to win by a neck, with Islington finishing third.

Holland lodged an objection immediately. After his earlier comments, it must have sounded like sour grapes to the hometown stewards, and they let the result stand. Luca Cumani, Falbrav's trainer, echoed a familiar complaint: We wuz robbed!

"We think we are the moral winners," Cumani said, "but morals do not put bread on the table."

Still, it was strange that Holland had traveled an inside route instead of opting for the faster ground in the middle of the course, though he may have had no choice. Only one thing was certain at the end of the Champion Stakes, really - Aidan O'Brien's fondness for Leopardstown was sure to continue.