Donn's Articles » Trainers’ championship

Trainers’ championship

The 2012 British trainers’ championship looked well over before it had really begun. When Aidan O’Brien won the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket with Camelot and the 1000 Guineas with Homecoming Queen on the first weekend in May, the season just a fledgling, the bookmakers offered odds of just 1/4 about the master of Ballydoyle being crowned champion in Britain once more.

When Camelot followed up in the Epsom Derby, preceded by victory for Was in the Epsom Oaks, four out of four British Classics gone back to Tipperary, few bookmakers offered any odds, and those who did said 1/7 or 1/8. Common consensus was that, just one-third of the way into the season, the championship was over.

Titles and records and championships are not new ideas at Ballydoyle. The notion of Aidan O’Brien being acclaimed a champion does not break new ground. However, the magnitude of the feat that an Irish trainer achieves when he is crowned champion in Britain should not be under-estimated.

While Paddy Prendergast was champion trainer in Britain three times during the mid-1960s, Dr Vincent O’Brien was champion in Britain just twice, in 1966 and 1977. It is not a coincidence that no Irish trainer emulated the legendary trainer until 2001, when his successor at Ballydoyle claimed the first of the four titles that he has won to date.

But just when you thought that Aidan was on track for number five this year, last weekend the landscape changed. The Ballydoyle horse So You Think, a warm favourite for last Saturday’s Coral-Eclipse, one of the most valuable prizes of the early summer, had to be withdrawn from the race because of a stone bruise, which opened the door for seasonal debutant Nathaniel to go and win the race for John Gosden.

Not only that, but during the hour immediately prior to the Eclipse, Gosden had won a valuable handicap at Sandown with Trade Commissioner and the Group 2 Lancashire Oaks at Haydock with Nathaniel’s sister Great Heavens. In the space of an hour, then, the gap between the two trainers in the championship race had been narrowed from a nigh unbridgeable £800,000 to a much more manageable £450,000, and suddenly it really is a contest.

There are certain key points in the season, set key races, that will ultimately determine the destination of this year’s championship. The first of those comes up next Saturday at Ascot in the form of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. O’Brien runs St Nicholas Abbey, Gosden is set to field Nathaniel.

Significantly, the King George is worth over £600,000 to the winner. If O’Brien wins it, he will more than double his lead in the trainer’s championship; if Gosden wins it, he will take over in front. The King George is a corner piece of the championship jigsaw.

Nathaniel’s chance is obvious. Winner of the race last year, when he beat St Nicholas Abbey into third place, it wasn’t the original intention to start him off this term in the Eclipse. However, a poor scope ruled him out of his intended seasonal debut in the Brigadier Gerard Stakes at the end of May so he went straight to Sandown last Saturday without a prep race.

There were massive positives to be gleaned from his performance in the Eclipse. He was competing over a distance that was probably short of his best, and he was making his seasonal debut against high-class race-fit rivals, yet he was still able to win, taking it up at the top of the home straight and battling on doggedly to fend off Farhh’s persistent challenge to get home by a half a length.

The main negative is that, unusually, the gap between the Eclipse and the King George this year is just two weeks, not three. Nathaniel is as tough as they make them, but he still may not have enough time to fully recover, for his trainer to be able to have him fresh and well and ready to run for his life again after putting in such a huge effort on his seasonal bow.

St Nicholas Abbey has four lengths to find on Nathaniel on their running in last year’s King George, but there are reasons for believing that he can at least narrow the gap significantly. For starters, the Ballydoyle horse was conceding 12lb to Nathaniel a year ago. Of course, Nathaniel was only three then, the weight-for-age scale says that he should have strengthened sufficiently in the intervening 12 months to enable him find that 12lb worth of improvement over a mile and a half, but these things often don’t pan out according to the theory.

As well as that, St Nicholas Abbey looks like an improved performer this year as a five-year-old. He had won the Coronation Cup in the run up to last year’s King George, but he was much more impressive in winning the same race this year on his most recent run. As well as that, he has won a Breeders’ Cup Turf and got to within a fast-diminishing neck of Cirrus Des Aigles in the Dubai Sheema Classic in the interim. That makes him a top class middle distance racehorse.

The main worry about St Nicholas Abbey is about his possible penchant for left-handed tracks. All of his big performances, his two Coronation Cups, his Breeders’ Cup Turf, even his narrow defeat in Dubai, have been at left-handed tracks. He has won four of his five races going left-handed, and he was beaten a neck by a top class rival in the other. By contrast, the son of Montjeu has won just once in six attempts going right-handed. It is not a definitive preference, but it is at least a slight concern in the context of Saturday’s race.

Of course, the outcome of the championship will not be decided by the King George, no more than the outcome of the Premier League is decided by one game. The season stretches out before us all the way to the end of October, and strength in-depth is going to be decisive.

At present, both trainers have that strength in their yards. O’Brien has suffered a depletion of ranks of sorts with the exit of So You Think back Down Under from whence he came and the retirement of two of his top three-year-old fillies, Kissed and Homecoming Queen, but he has myriad options for just about all the top class British races. Fame And Glory, Power, Excelebration, Was, Starspangledbanner, Treasure Beach, Imperial Monarch, as well as the aforementioned St Nicholas Abbey and a host of others. And Camelot, of course. No better than 2/5 for the Ladbrokes St Leger. There’s £300,000 right there.

But Gosden’s team looks just as impressive on paper. Coronation Stakes winner Fallen For You, impressive Duke of Edinburgh winner Camborne and Wolferton Handicap winner Gatewood, the hugely progressive Trade Commissioner, proven Group 1 filly Izzi Top and potential Group 1 filly Great Heavens, and the exciting juvenile Newfangled as well as a trio of St Leger hopefuls Michelangelo, Shantaram and Thought Worthy. And Nathaniel. Don’t forget Nathaniel.

Gosden says that he will not allow the championship to influence decisions on his horses’ targets, and that is as it should be. It means that he will advise owner Lady Rothschild to pay the supplementary entry fee for Great Heavens for the Darley Irish Oaks if the trainer deems that that is the race for her, even though it obviously doesn’t count towards the British championship.

It means that he will not run Nathaniel in the King George unless he is happy that his horse has fully recovered from the Eclipse, that he will not target Michelangelo at the St Leger unless the colt steps forward again in the Gordon Stakes, that he will still train Nathaniel for the Arc de Triomphe n France in October, if he progresses along the right lines.

O’Brien is of a similar mindset. He always is. Do what is right by the horses, target them at the right races, wherever those races happen to be, and if the championship happens, it happens.

They now bet 2/7 O’Brien, 5/2 Gosden. This could run and run.

© The Sunday Times, 15th July 2012