Donn's Articles » Australia


There was never a point during the Juddmonte International at York on Wednesday at which you thought that Australia would not win.

The Aidan O’Brien-trained colt was last of the six runners for the first seven and a half furlongs of the 10-and-a-half-furlong race, but rider Joseph O’Brien always looked comfortable. He moved up smoothly towards the stands side in the home straight when his rider gave him a squeeze, he hit the front just inside the two-furlong marker and, under just a hands-and-heels ride, no need to resort to the whip, he came clear of his rivals. No fuss.

The fuss was all in the preamble. True, he had won two Derbies, he had been even more impressive in landing the Irish Derby at The Curragh than he had been in winning at Epsom, but he had never before taken on his elders. The Juddmonte International was his first chance to take on the best of the generation that had gone before.

In Telescope and Mukhadram, the Hardwicke Stakes winner and the Eclipse winner, he faced two of the best middle-distance older horses in Europe. Throw in contemporary The Grey Gatsby, winner of the Dante and the French Derby and, despite the fact that he faced just a handful of rivals, in terms of depth of quality of opposition, it was Australia’s toughest test.

Then there were the weight issues for horse and rider. Australia had put weight on since we had seen him last, Joseph O’Brien had to take weight off in order to ensure that his horse would carry no more than his allotted 8st 12lb.

Australia hadn’t raced since he had won the Irish Derby at the end of June. During that time – equine adolescent that he is – he had grown and matured and thrived. He had grown stronger, but he had also grown in mass. Aidan O’Brien said that he had put on between 15 and 20 kilogrammes, and that is significant.

Exactly how fit he was, therefore, was something of an educated guessing game. You start a horse back in the middle of the season after a break, you want him to be fit enough to run his race, but you don’t want to overdo his preparation. He is just starting back, his first race back is the launch pad for the remainder of his season. You want to maximise his chance of winning his comeback race, but you also want the run to bring him forward again, not set him back. That is the balance that top class trainers like O’Brien can strike. There’s your horse sense right there.

Weight is also a balancing act for Joseph O’Brien. Pare your near-six-foot frame down to as light as it can go, but don’t lose any of your physical strength or mental agility. Keep the scales tilted in your favour.

Joseph usually rides fairly comfortably at 9st, but he had not ridden at 8st 12lb in over two years, not since May 2012, just before his 19th birthday. Aidan said that Joseph could do 8st 12lb all right, but that they don’t allow him do it too often. In truth, if he was ever going to do it again, he was going to do it for Australia on Wednesday.

Ruby Walsh said on Racing UK on Wednesday that the key for Joseph was not getting down to 8st 12lb on the day, but what happened after the race. That after he had wrung his body down to 8st 12lb minus the weight of his postage-stamp saddle, he needed to allow his weight go back up gradually. Joseph knows this. It is unlikely that he had three bottles of Coke on the plane on Wednesday evening, and he probably passed on the full Irish on Thursday morning.

As it turned out, Joseph could have ridden at 9st and the result probably would have been the same. Australia probably would have won the Juddmonte International easily with another 2lb on his back. He probably would have won it with another 7lb on his back. But that is the 20-20 that hindsight brings. Once Joseph committed to riding Australia, you knew that he was going to get down to 8st 12lb. And even though he did, he lost nothing in terms of riding wits or strength or style.

Australia has moved onto a new level now. He is not just the best middle-distance three-year-old colt of 2014 any more. Now he is a dual Derby winner who has beaten his elders over 10 furlongs in the Juddmonte International. He has bridged the generation gap.

When the Galileo colt runs now, we are reminded that Aidan O’Brien said he was potentially his best horse ever. That must bring with it such pressure that the trainer must regret ever uttering the supposition. That may explain why, every time he wins, the feeling among winning connections seems to be closer to relief than euphoria. But when he does, it brings him one notch closer to reaching the near dizzy standard that was set for him in that statement.

Timeform awarded him a rating of 131+ for Wednesday’s performance, his highest rating yet, 4lb higher than the mark they awarded him for winning the Epsom Derby. That is just 5lb lower than the highest Timeform rating that Sea The Stars ever achieved. That is the neighbourhood in which Australia is operating now, and that is a fairly respectable neighbourhood.

So what next? The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe is a legitimate target. It would be a fitting end to Australia’s season. However, the ground can sometimes come up soft in Paris in early October and, if it does, you can be certain that Australia will not race there. Also, it may be that 10 furlongs is more his trip than 12 furlongs. He lasted home in the Derby all right, but he wasn’t coming away from Kingston Hill inside the final 100 yards. At York on Wednesday, by contrast, he went powerfully all the way to the line at the end of the extended 10 furlongs.

The QIPCO Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown on 13th Septmber is his obvious next target, and that is the race that appears to be at the forefront of connections’ minds. After that, all going well, if he doesn’t go for the Arc, it will probably be on to Ascot for the Champion Stakes on Champions Day.

Intriguingly, Aidan O’Brien did say that he could drop back down to a mile as easily as step back up to a mile and a half. If he did drop down in trip, the obvious race for him is the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes run, like the Champion Stakes, at Ascot on Champions Day. If he did target that race, it would potentially set up another meeting with quadruple Group 1 winner Kingman. Now that would be a fitting end to the season.

© The Sunday Times, 24th August 2014