11/29/2002 12:00AM

When the gate opens, it means go

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Century City can be forgiven if he is still slightly disoriented. Consider the culture shock.

A laid-back son of Danzig, built like an SUV, Century City suspected nothing last July when he boarded a van at his comfortable Ballydoyle stables, deep in the heart of Ireland, and set out along the road to Cashel.

He had no reason to believe he would never see his training mates again, colts like Rock of Gibraltar, High Chapparal, Hawk Wing, and Landseer, all members of Aidan O'Brien's remarkable 3-year-old class of 2002. At $2.2 million, Century City cost more than any of them.

For all he knew, he was on his way once again to Leopardstown, or the Curragh, or perhaps to Shannon Airport, from which a jet might take him across the Irish Sea to an English destination no more exotic than Newmarket or Ascot. Big deal.

Then something happened. Century City boarded a plane, but it sailed past London and landed in Amsterdam. There was time on the ground, then he was airborne again, this time for the long haul west across the Atlantic.

Once on the ground at JFK, Century City hit the road north along the Hudson, to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where he was quarantined at Saratoga. Everything was different - sights, sounds, smells, and feed. And then, amidst the confusion, a genial, curly-haired human stepped up to take command.

Meet the new boss. A bit different from the old boss.

Aidan Patrick O'Brien and Christopher Beau Greely are both Thoroughbred trainers of Irish descent. After that, their personalities dramatically diverge.

O'Brien, 33, comes across as bookish, shy, and deadly serious, a man known to stop on the way home from the race course to attend evening mass.

He comes from County Wexford in the southeast of Ireland. He also happens to be Europe's most successful trainer.

Greely, 31, is made more of hardboot than of the olde sod. He has his serious moments, to be sure, as a husband, a new father, and caretaker of increasingly valuable horseflesh. But for the most part, life is meant to be lived, and Beau does his part.

His great-grandfather was born in County Mayo, in Ireland's northwest, a land known primarily for its vast, empty landscapes. For the last three generations, though, the Greelys have been pure Kentucky, with a name that runs through the Thoroughbred world like Baldwins in the movie business.

Beau set his course early, going off to serve apprenticeships in England, Ireland, and France before settling in California under the wing of Richard Mandella. In 1997, Greely left the fold, and since then such stakes winners as Manndar, Takarian, and Five Star Day have given him a taste of the big time.

Now, with Century City, Greely has renewed a connection with O'Brien and the horses of Coolmore Stud, a relationship that already paid off with the purchase of Sligo Bay, winner of last week's Hollywood Turf Cup and second in the 2001 Hollywood Derby.

Greely is hoping Century City can do Sligo Bay one better on Sunday, when the derby will be run for a purse of $500,000. The field will include Rock Opera, Johar, Union Place, Music's Storm, and the Bobby Frankel team of Inesperado and Royal Gem, but Century City's most daunting opponent could be the starting gate.

In Century City's first North American race, the Bay Meadows Derby on Nov. 3, the big colt froze when the gates popped, spotting his field an insurmountable lead. Still he was beaten barely two noses by Royal Gem.

"Generally, European horses will break a little bit slow," Greely said. "We're so much more speed oriented over here. But the Bay Meadows race was a freaky thing. I mean, he just stood there. And he was about the heaviest favorite I've ever run."

To that point, Greely had exercised consummate patience with the preparation of Century City for an American career.

"We thought about running in the Travers," Greely said. "But after training him for three days at Saratoga, I knew he needed more time."

After that, Greely pointed for the Oak Tree Derby. Still, Century City was not quite right. The Hollywood Derby then became the prime target, with the Bay Meadows race as a perfect gauge. Then the gates opened.

"Since that race he has broken twice out of the gate," Greely said. "And he's been phenomenal."

We will find out Sunday if the lesson took hold.