05/14/2004 11:00PM

Return to turf the right move for Mr O'Brien


BALTIMORE - After spending the last year racing on dirt, Mr O'Brien has found his rightful place on the grass.

Two weeks after scoring a nine-length win on the turf here in the Henry Clark Stakes, Mr O'Brien took it up a notch Saturday by beating a solid group of older turf horses by two lengths in the Grade 2, $200,000 . Millennium Dragon, who was caught behind the tiring pacesetter Wudantunoit in the stretch, got clear late to get second by a head over Warleigh.

In covering the 1 1/8 miles over firm turf in 1:46.34, Mr O'Brien shattered the Pimlico course record of 1:47.04, set by Doubled Booked in this race 13 years ago.

The victory was the most significant win recorded by Maryland-based trainer Robin Graham, who received Mr O'Brien last October from the Skeetdattle II partnership of Willie White and Lou Rehak.

After a couple of mediocre efforts on dirt by Mr O'Brien, Graham decided to turn him out for the winter and try him back on the turf, a surface over which the 5-year-old Mr O'Brien had won in his younger days.

"The last couple of times I ran him it didn't look like he was handling the track; it didn't look like he was happy about it," Graham said. "We turned him out for a couple of months and brought him back and tried grass again because he liked it before, and obviously he still likes it now."

Under Ramon Dominguez, Mr O'Brien settled into seventh position early while Wudantunoit set the pace stalked by Wando and Millennium Dragon. Mr O'Brien advanced into contention on his own entering the far turn, took over from pace-setting Wudantunoit inside the eighth pole, and drew clear despite failing to switch leads. Mr O'Brien, an Irish-bred son of Mukaddamah, returned $24.80 to win.

"Once he made the lead he was kind of waiting for company," Dominguez said. "At the same time, he was full of energy. I didn't use him the first part, and he was willing to do anything I asked him to do."

Herculated, ridden by Frank Lovato, was sent off the lukewarm favorite, but was never involved and finished 10th of 11.

"The ground is pretty firm. I think it helps a lot of horses and it hurts a lot of horses," said Lovato. "In his case I think it hurt him."