Updated on 09/16/2011 7:29AM

A World Cup within a world


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Niall O'Callaghan's phone has been ringing off the hook lately, and it has nothing to do with the prospects of Lone Star Derby winner Wiseman's Ferry taking on War Emblem in the Belmont Stakes next weekend.

"I've had thousands of Irish people call me - well hundreds - to tell me what a big bunch of crybabies us Cork fellas are," said O'Callaghan, whose family hails from the southern Irish county.

O'Callaghan will know if he will be at the Belmont after Wiseman's Ferry works on Saturday. But even if he goes, the trainer will be joining the party with a heavy heart. By the time the June 8 Belmont Stakes comes around, the Republic of Ireland could be well on its way to elimination from a sporting event that makes the Triple Crown look like a game of schoolyard marbles.

The World Cup commences this weekend. Yes, that would be soccer. European commerce will come to a standstill. Half a billion Chinese watched as their team qualified for the tournament. And so, while this space normally is dedicated to the pursuit of truth and enlightenment in the game of horse racing, something as big as the World Cup is hard to ignore.

America has tried and for the most part succeeded. There are 191 sovereign nations on planet earth. (A total of 32 qualify for the World Cup.) With the possible exceptions of Palau and Kiribati - isolated Pacific island chains - no country is more impervious to World Cup madness than the good old U. S. of A.

Still, there are pockets of World Cup passion. Racetracks, being bona fide international melting pots, are among them. As the matches unfold through the month of June, look for signs that soccer has seized temporary control:

On the morning of June 6, at Belmont Park, will Prince Ahmed Salman be more concerned with the match just concluded in Saitama, Japan, between his Saudi Arabian squad and the upstart 11 from Cameroon than with the final preparations of War Emblem?

Victor Espinoza has confessed he is not a soccer fan, but for the World Cup he makes an exception. If War Emblem wins, what better way to celebrate than to stay up all night and watch his native Mexico try run up a big score against Ecuador in Miyagi, Japan.

Frank Lyons, TVG commentator and licensed trainer, maintains considerable composure in the face of any startling developments. However, given the timing of the June 5 match between his beloved Ireland and the dreary Germans in Ibaraki, Japan, Lyons could interrupt his Belmont coverage with a tirade over the Roy Keane affair that ripped the heart out of the Irish team.

It was Keane, also a native of County Cork, who made Niall O'Callaghan's life miserable by walking out on the Irish team over a spat with his coach. Keane is basically the soccer world's version of Vlade Divac. You don't go to war without him.

"In America, we might think, 'What's all the hassle?' " O'Callaghan said from his Churchill Downs stable. "But it's something that grips you more than you'd think. Roy Keane, being the world's best midfielder, made our team a contender. In a country as small as Ireland, you can't imagine how much that means. Over there, the news was bigger than O.J."

Pico Perdomo can sympathize. The native of Uruguay (pop. 2.5 million) and trainer of champion mare Gourmet Girl will be at the barn bright and early on the morning of June 6 to watch his team face France, the defending World Cup champions, in Busan, South Korea. Perdomo was 10 when Uruguay brought home the World Cup in 1950 after beating Brazil in Brazil's own Maracana Stadium.

"I remember like it was today," Perdomo said between sets at Hollywood Park. "I was at my father's barn. We had a barbecue, listening on the radio, all the grooms and everybody. After the game, there were a lot of Brazilians killed themselves. They were not supposed to lose. In the game, the players wore a shirt underneath their regular shirts that said 'Brazil - Champion of the World.' "

In case anyone cares, the United States is fielding a World Cup squad. Vladimir Cerin is torn, but only slightly, between support for his native Croatia and his adopted American team. Croatia made it to the semi-finals in 1998.

"But they were an old team then," Cerin warned. "Now they're ancient."

After coming to the U.S. at the age of 14, Cerin learned the game in Southern California. He played for the UCLA soccer team that went all the way to the NCAA finals in 1974 before losing to St. Louis University in triple overtime. More importantly, Cerin coached his daughter's under-16 team to a California state championship. The trophy shares space in the Cerin household with the 1999 Hollywood Gold Cup won by Early Pioneer.

As a sensitive employer, Cerin must be concerned with the psychological welfare of his help. Mexico and Croatia, both drawn into the same first-round group of four, meet late Sunday night, California time, in Niigata, Japan. There is a lot at stake.

"Either the crew will be getting a paid day off on Monday," Cerin said, "or I get the day off."