11/02/2006 12:00AM

Taking a big gamble with 'George'

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Had George Washington been entered in the Breeders' Cup Mile, he likely would have been the favorite, and

deservedly so, for he has proven to be the best miler in Europe. But owners John Magnier and Michael Tabor have not made it to the top of the sport by taking the safe, conventional route, whether racing their horses or managing their stallions, and in trainer Aidan O'Brien they have a partner eager and willing to aim high.

And so it will be with George Washington. Even though he has never raced beyond a mile, or on dirt, or anywhere other than Britain and Ireland, George Washington has been sent to Churchill Downs for a 1o1/4-mile dirt race against American-based dirt specialists such as Bernardini, Invasor, and Lava Man.

His presence adds intrigue to the $5 million Classic, which likely will determine Horse of the Year on Saturday. The last time the Breeders' Cup was here, in 2000, Magnier, Tabor, and O'Brien put mile specialist Giant's Causeway in the Classic, and he came up just a neck shy of the victorious Tiznow.

But on five other occasions - with Black Minnaloushe and Galileo in 2001, Hawk Wing in 2002, Hold That Tiger in 2003, and Oratorio last year - their experiments with turf runners in the Classic were abject failures.

Giant's Causeway's race was so good that he remained here for stallion duty. His first crop includes Aragorn, who is the top American-based turf miler and one of the leading contenders in the $2 million Mile. Magnier and Tabor operate Coolmore Stud in Ireland, and Ashford Stud in Kentucky. According to O'Brien, the Classic gives George Washington a chance to be "exposed" to an American audience before he goes to stud next year. Where he goes to stud - Ireland or Kentucky - very likely will be determined by how well he runs in the Classic, which will be his final race.

"We felt like George had proved all he could prove on the turf in this part of the world," O'Brien said from his Irish training facility, Ballydoyle, during a recent teleconference. "He's run against all the best milers. He has nothing to prove by running a mile on the turf again. That was part of the reason. We always felt we never had a horse like him before. They're all major factors.

"Our job is to try and expose the horses as much as possible for the breeders," O'Brien said.

This race is more than a whim. In addition to the stallion aspects, you can bet the Irish team would love nothing more than to knock off a horse like Classic favorite Bernardini, who is owned by Sheikh Mohammed, their fierce rival both on the track and at the elite yearling sales.

No European-based outfit has attacked the Breeders' Cup quite like Magnier, Tabor, and O'Brien. They have sent out 35 runners since 1998, an average of more than four per year. By comparison, Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin Racing - which is based in Britain and Dubai - has had 24 runners sent out by trainer Saeed bin Suroor since 1995. French trainer Andre Fabre has run 38 horses, though he had his first Breeders' Cup entrant back in 1987.

The Irish team has had its best success on grass. High Chaparral won consecutive runnings of the Turf in 2002-03, and Rock of Gibraltar just missed in the 2002 Mile. But they have won on dirt. Johannesburg switched to the dirt for the 2001 Juvenile, won the race, won an Eclipse Award, earned the right to remain in this country as a stallion, and has proven wildly popular at stud.

George Washington is by the Danzig stallion Danehill, and is out of the Alysheba mare Bordighera. He was bred in Ireland by the Lael Stables of Gretchen and Roy Jackson, who also bred another top 3-year-old this year. You might have heard of him. His name is Barbaro.

On the same day that Barbaro won the Kentucky Derby for the Jacksons, who kept Barbaro to race, George Washington captured the English 2000 Guineas in his first start of the year. That marked his fifth straight win, dating back to a 2-year-old season in which he won his last four races after finishing third in his debut.

In his next start, George Washington finished second over a testing course at the Curragh in the Irish 2000 Guineas. How bad was the ground? The winner, Araafa, slogged through the mile in 1:49.80.

George Washington "pulled a muscle in his back on heavy ground in the Irish Guineas," O'Brien said. He did not race again for three months. George Washington lost again in his comeback, finishing third in the Celebration Mile at Goodwood on Aug. 27.

"He had been away a long ways," O'Brien said. "He was very rusty."

George Washington returned to his best form in Britian's premier mile race in the fall, the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot on Sept. 23. He finished furiously to win going away.

Kieren Fallon had ridden George Washington in his first six races, but because he is currently barred from riding in Britain - and, reciprocally, in the United States - because of a betting scandal, Mick Kinane rode George Washington in his last two starts. Kinane will have the mount again Saturday. Kinane also rode Giant's Causeway in the 2000 Classic. He lost his right rein at a critical point in the final furlong.

Asked why an American jockey more familiar with dirt racing is not being used for this race, O'Brien said: "We felt with George it's important to know him. Mick learned a lot the first time and last time. This is going to be his last run. We don't want to put someone on who takes a run to get to know him again."

What gives O'Brien the most confidence in George Washington is his belief that the colt is "the most brilliant horse we've ever had."

"We always thought he was an unbelievably special horse," O'Brien said. "We've never had a horse with such natural speed. The speed at which he cruises is second to none. We're hoping ability overcomes everything else - the dirt and the travel. It's a big, tall order. We know that the odds are stacked against him. It will be exciting to see what happens."