Donn's Articles » Three-year-old colts

Three-year-old colts

After Australia beat Free Eagle in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Trial at Leopardstown last September, Aidan O’Brien left us in no doubt as to the regard in which the colt was held at Ballydoyle.

“I don’t want to be blowing up the horse,” he said then, “but he has always been doing things that no two-year-old has ever done before. Everybody probably knows that we have always thought that he is the best horse that we have ever had.”

As commendations go, they don’t get much higher. The only difficulty in drawing up a list of top class horses whose careers have been managed by Aidan O’Brien is that, once you start the list, it is difficult to know where or when to stop. Even if you were to restrict the list to O’Brien’s juveniles, even if you were to leave out the older horses, you would still fill a page. For any horse to be acclaimed as Aidan O’Brien’s best ever is mind-boggling.

When Australia next appeared in public, he had gone through the chrysalis phase that is a juvenile’s winter, and emerged on the other side as a shiny new three-year-old. After a public racecourse gallop after racing at The Curragh on Irish Lincoln day last month, Aidan was in no mood to retract. “He’s the second best horse we’ve ever had,” he said with a glint in his eye, “but the best wasn’t a Flat horse.” The reference to triple Champion Hurdle hero Istabraq was unmistakable.

“It wasn’t made up,” the trainer added, “but he has to go and do it now.”

That’s the key. He has to go and do it. Put up the performances that his reputation demands. As things stand, Australia is just a Group 3 winner. He has never even contested a Group 1 race. His Timeform rating of 116p rates him just the third-best juvenile in Ireland, the sixth-best in Europe and just the 13th best in the world. Indeed, he is not even the highest-rated juvenile in his own yard. That accolade belongs to War Command.

That makes sense. Timeform ratings are awarded on achievement, not on potential. War Command won the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot last June, he won the Futurity Stakes at The Curragh in August, and he rounded off the season by landing the Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket in October, the race that is usually regarded as the juvenile colts’ championship event.

And yet, on Irish Lincoln day last month, Aidan O’Brien intimated that, as long as Australia remained healthy and well, and arrived at Newmarket on 2000 Guineas day ready to run a race, War Command would probably by-pass Newmarket and go to Longchamp for the French 2000 Guineas instead.

Australia was actually beaten on his racecourse debut at The Curragh last June, but he missed the break that day, he lost at least five or six lengths at the start, and he was beaten just a neck.

There were no such mis-haps on his next run, back at The Curragh in July, when he kept on well to win his maiden nicely, but it was his third and final run as a juvenile that suggested that he could live up to his lofty reputation. Free Eagle was favourite for this year’s Derby before that race at Leopardstown in September, but Australia beat him by six lengths, thereby usurping the Dermot Weld colt’s position at the top of the Derby market.

Australia has also assumed control at the top of the 2000 Guineas market. Available at 7/1 and 8/1 when he entered winter quarters, the market confidence behind him since then, and in the last few weeks in particular, has been such that he is now a general 3/1 shot.

A son of champion racehorse and champion sire Galileo, out of Oaks winner and Breeders’ Cup heroine Ouija Board, Australia is bred to be a champion. A 525,000-guinea yearling, he is ostensibly bred more for stamina than speed, as more of a Derby horse than a Guineas horse, but he proved last year that he didn’t lack pace.

He will probably make his seasonal debut in the Guineas at Newmarket. That is not a negative in the context of his prospects of winning the first colts’ Classic, given that all of Aidan O’Brien’s six 2000 Guineas winners to date were making their seasonal debuts at Newmarket. It does mean, however, that we will not have the opportunity to see Australia race before the first Saturday in May. His reappearance is more eagerly anticipated than that of any other horse this season.

But the potential competition is intense. The Guineas trials have already begun. Yesterday’s Greenham Stakes set the trials’ ball in motion, heralding, as it did, the return of the John Gosden-trained Kingman. The Invincible Spirit colt, unbeaten in two runs last season, was scintillating in landing the Greenham, putting up a performance that sees him replace Australia as Guineas favourite this morning.

The trials season will continue to roll on to the Craven Stakes at Newmarket next Thursday, which is set to feature the return of Toormore.

Richard Hannon’s horse is fascinating. A £36,000 yearling, the Arakan colt scraped home by a neck in a Leicester maiden on his racecourse debut last May, but he stepped up markedly on that run to win the Group 2 Vintage Stakes at Glorious Goodwood on his second run. He showed a fine turn of foot that day under Richard Hughes to catch and pass the Godolphin colt Outstrip, who added ballast to the form by going and winning the Group 2 Champagne Stakes on his next run, and by landing the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Santa Anita on his final run of the season. In the interim, however, Outstrip could finish only third behind War Command in the Dewhurst, and that may give Aidan O’Brien a good handle on where his horses stand relative to the British horses.

On Toormore’s third and final run last term, he came over to Ireland and won the Group 1 National Stakes, comfortably beating the David Wachman-trained Sudirman, who had won the Group 1 Phoenix Stakes on his previous run. That is high-class juvenile form, and it will be fascinating to see how Toormore fares on his debut as a three-year-old on Thursday. Timeform rated him the best juvenile in Europe last season.

Kingston Hill was rated just 2lb lower than Toormore last year and, like Richard Hannon’s horse, he too was unbeaten in three runs as a juvenile. Trained by the astute Roger Varian, the Mastercraftsman colt did not make his racecourse debut until September last year, but he won his maiden and a Group 3 contest before going on to run out an impressive winner of the Group 1 Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster. And he achieved all of that in the space of just over a month.

Like Australia, Kingston Hill is probably bred more for middle distances than for a mile, and the Racing Post Trophy is often more a guide to the following year’s Derby than to the following year’s Guineas. That said, his trainer is happy that he has the pace for a mile. The Guineas is his early-season target, but he will probably step up in trip as the season progresses.

It is a season that is bursting with potential at present.

© The Sunday Times, 13th April 2014