09/18/2001 11:00PM

The two sides of Niall O'Callaghan

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - In the two decades since he came to the United States from his native Ireland, trainer Niall O'Callaghan has earned quite a reputation as a glad-hander. On any given Saturday, in any given racetrack paddock before any given stakes race, O'Callaghan can probably be spotted in his finest duds, shaking hands and laughing and generally making his presence known, even when he does not have a horse to saddle.

What this image of conviviality fails to portray is a seriousness and dedication that resides deep inside the 38-year-old O'Callaghan. After all, what he has accomplished as a trainer has not been done with smoke, mirrors, and transparent public relations.

"I do suppose that some people see me as someone who's joking around a lot," he said. "But I take the game very seriously."

On Saturday, when the Kentucky Cup series is held at Turfway Park for the eighth time, O'Callaghan not only will have the opportunity to mix and mingle with his kind of people, but also to show off what might be called the most serious runner he's had in his 11-year training career. The horse is Guided Tour, who already is a winner of $1.6 million and the highweight and probable favorite in the day's richest race, the $400,000 Kentucky Classic.

Guided Tour, a once underachieving gelding owned by Morton Fink, has blossomed into one of the top handicap horses in the Midwest, if not the U.S. He has won three of six starts this year, all Grade 2 handicaps - the San Antonio at Santa Anita, the Stephen Foster at his home base of Churchill Downs, and the Washington Park at Arlington.

The progress that Guided Tour has made in his 28-race career is clearly a tribute to O'Callaghan. A self-described "up person" who enjoys, he says, "people who laugh with you, people you can have fun with," he can talk for hours about the more serious aspects of American racing.

"I live for the excitement on a weekend basis," said O'Callaghan, who has never been married. "I'm passionate about my job. I watch races constantly, whether it's in person or on TV or the computer. I love the excitement of plotting things out, of getting a horse into a spot where it can win the most money. I listen to the stakes coordinators and journalists and jockeys' agents and get it all turning over and over in my mind."

Two of his greatest successes in plotting things out came this year, when he bypassed an allowance race to win the $600,000 Explosive Bid at Fair Grounds with Tijiyr and when he took a calculated gamble with Guided Tour in June and upset Captain Steve in winning the $750,000 Stephen Foster.

A former apprentice jockey in Ireland and a longtime exercise rider in America, O'Callaghan is particularly adept at imparting his wisdom and experience to his exercise riders. "I think being a teacher is what I enjoy most about the morning activity," he said.

"The most important thing is I love the horses, the fun of them changing, their development, how their condition and personality change," he said.

He said that his staff, led by assistant Jennifer Brown, "enjoy what I enjoy, and that's how to try to figure out how to make the horses happy and run to what their potential is."

When Generous Rosi won the Turfway Fall Championship on Sept. 8, it marked O'Callaghan's 60th career stakes victory.

He often credits his success to his owners, his staff, and the assistance of Jake Hadad of the Ragozin Sheets, a handicapping tool he uses extensively. Because of "the sheets," O'Callaghan said he wanted to give Guided Tour at least a seven-week break after the July 21 Washington Park, lest the horse "bounce" off the "3" he earned on the sheets in a four-length win.

"This will be nine weeks," O'Callaghan said. "That's fine."

Larry Melancon, who has ridden Guided Tour in the majority of his races the last two years, said the the 5-year-old gelding appears to be coming to the Kentucky Cup in good order. "He's stepped up his game," he said. "He's just getting better and better."

While Melancon and O'Callaghan are looking forward to the weekend, O'Callaghan said that a spark is missing because of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. that occurred Sept. 11.

"This is the first weekend that I can remember feeling like this coming up on a big race," he said. "It doesn't seem to mean as much. Nothing does. It takes something of a backseat to what is most important in our world."

O'Callaghan, a privately devout Catholic, said he has been deeply moved by the many stories emanating from New York.

He talks about the need to pray for the victims and, he said, "for everyone in America to know that we're going to get things going right again."