11/01/2006 1:00AM

Racing's royalty take off the gloves

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NEW YORK - Get Bernardini!

Sounds like the title of a gangster movie, but it is, in fact, a major subplot in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic.

Beating Bernardini is the number one piece of business on John Magnier's mind. He tried it with Dylan Thomas in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and failed. Undaunted, he decided to send the best horse in his Ballydoyle stable, George Washington, after Bernardini in the Classic even though George Washington would have been a prohibitive favorite in the Mile. On the face of it, that sounds illogical, but the George Washington vs. Bernardini Classic is part of a larger scenario that pits the world's two leading horsemen - and its two biggest egos - against each other on all of the sport's biggest stages.

This is Magnier, arguably the most powerful man in Ireland, the proprietor of Coolmore Stud and Aidan O'Brien's Ballydoyle training center, and the owner of George Washington, the best horse in Europe, vs. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the unquestioned authority in Dubai, the commander-in-chief of Godolphin, Darley, and Gainsborough, and the owner of Bernardini, the best horse in the United States.

More than a horse race, this is a grudge match of epic proportions between Magnier's dark blue colors and Sheikh Mohammed's Darley maroon and white. Think medieval joust with lances unsheathed.

The rivalry between racing's two most important personages dates back to the late 70's, when Magnier was part of the Robert Sangster-Vincent O'Brien syndicate that would revolutionize the racing world, in no small part through the titanic duels they would wage with the Maktoum brothers at the Keeneland and Saratoga sales rings through the early 80's.

That groundwork led to the emergence of Magnier and Sheikh Mohammed as the top cats in the Thoroughbred racing world. Sheikh Mohammed has had Balanchine, Lammtarra, Swain, Daylami, Fantastic Light, and Dubai Millennium. Magnier has had Giant's Causeway, Galileo, Rock of Gibraltar, High Chaparral, and Johannesburg, and he stands Sadler's Wells and Montjeu at Coolmore-Ireland. In recent years, however, each man has grown uncomfortable sharing top billing. What had once been a mutual admiration society has grown acrimonious.

No one who saw the incredible stretchlong duel between Godolphin's Fantastic Light and Magnier's Galileo in the 2001 Irish Champion Stakes will forget it. Fantastic Light gave Sheikh Mohammed a great victory that day, and he and Magnier have been at it tooth-and-nail ever since. Early last year, there were reports in the British racing press that Sheikh Mohammed had instituted a policy of not sending his mares to Coolmore stallions, but the Darley camp has denied such a policy.

Tempers boiled over when Frankie Dettori, Sheikh Mohammed's contract rider for Godolphin, accepted an invitation from Ballydoyle to ride Scorpion in last year's classic St. Leger Stakes at Doncaster. He was able to do so only because Ballydoyle's rider, Kieren Fallon, was engaged the same day at Leopardstown with Oratorio while Godolphin did not have a runner in the race. Dettori duly guided Scorpion to a one-length victory while the racing world chuckled over the irony of a Godolphin man riding a Ballydoyle horse to a big-race victory.

But Sheikh Mohammed was not smiling. Bad enough that Magnier had won a classic, but that he should have used a Godolphin employee to get the job done rankled. A few days later, word came to Dettori from on high that he must never ride for Ballydoyle again. On the winning side this time, Magnier could afford to be magnanimous. "We still love you, Frankie!" he chortled, conscious of the coup he had pulled off at the expense of Sheikh Mohammed's wounded pride.

But King John was not laughing at the Keeneland September sales two months ago, when Sheikh Mohammed, his pockets bulging with petrodollars, outbid the Magnier team on every single yearling of mutual interest.

Magnier got some back when George Washington slammed Godolphin's Librettist into sixth place when winning the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot on Sept.o24, but the Breeders' Cup Classic is an even bigger fish to fry. Magnier knows from experience that victory in the Classic, or even a near miss like that of Giant's Causeway in 2000, can add substantially to a European horse's stud value. To do so at the expense of Sheikh Mohammed's Bernardini would would double the Irishman's fun, and return the smile to his face.