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Aidan O’Brien

So it looks like Churchill is going to remain over a mile for now, it looks like Aidan O’Brien’s 2000 Guineas winner is set to run in the Tattersalls Irish 2000 Guineas at The Curragh next Saturday instead of stepping up in trip for the Investec Derby at Epsom a week later.

There is something about the Guineas winner running in the Derby, it is strangely exciting and comfortable at the same time.  It could be a tradition thing, a history thing, your grandfather’s stories about the great Guineas winners who stepped up in trip and won the Derby, the legends and the stories that were part of your formative years, Crepello and Sir Ivor and Nijinsky.  Giants they were, bigger than horses.

The Guineas/Derby double is not easily done.  To have the speed and the precocity to with the Guineas over a straight mile at Newmarket in May, and to also have the stamina and the pace and the constitution that is required to win the Derby over a mile and a half of Epsom’s cambers in June: it is a lot to ask of one horse.

It can still be done though in the modern era.  Camelot did it, Sea The Stars did it.  New Approach was just beaten in the Guineas before going on to win the Derby, Australia finished third in the Guineas before winning the Derby.

If Churchill were to run in the Derby, he would be the automatic favourite.  He would be deemed by the market to be the most likely winner.  The Galileo colt hasn’t been beaten since he finished third on his racecourse debut at The Curragh almost exactly a year ago.  He won the Chesham Stakes at Royal Ascot on his second run, then proceeded unbeaten through the rest of last season, winning the Group 1 National Stakes and the Group 1 Dewhurst Stakes on his last two outings.  Then two weeks ago, on his first run as a three-year-old, he won the 2000 Guineas. 

You can argue that there is every chance that Churchill will stay a mile and a half.  He is by wundersire Galileo, and when you are by Galileo you have a chance of staying any trip.  Also, he relaxes well in his races, he coasts, he stretches out his energy.

However, Churchill is out of the Storm Cat mare Meow, who was a sprinter.  She never went beyond five furlongs in her racing career.  She ran in five races, each one of them over the minimum trip. 

You could try to win the Derby with Churchill, but there is an opportunity cost in so doing.  If you run in the Derby, you miss the Irish 2000 Guineas and probably the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot as well.  Dawn Approach did manage to win the Royal Ascot race in 2013 after getting well beaten in the Derby two weeks earlier, but that was an extraordinary feat.

Churchill is so good over a mile, he has the pace of a top class miler, that it is easy to argue the case for keeping him to that trip.  And the programme is there, the races are there: Irish 2000 Guineas, St James’s Palace Stakes, Sussex Stakes.  They pick themselves.  You can step him up to 10 furlongs later in the season, perhaps for the Eclipse or the Juddmonte International or the Irish Champion Stakes, but for now, it is probable that a mile is his optimum trip.  If it ain’t broke.

Aidan O’Brien has trained eight 2000 Guineas winners, more winners than any other trainer in the history of the race, and, of the seven that have gone before Churchill, only two ran in the Derby.  King Of Kings, his first Guineas winner, who finished last in the Derby and didn’t race again, and Camelot, who won the Derby.

Of course, the other influencing element is the fact that O’Brien has so many other Derby options.  He has dominated the trials.  He had the 1-2-3 in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial and the 1-2-3 in the Chester Vase.  He also had the winner of the Dee Stakes in Cliffs Of Moher, and the Galileo colt is slowly evolving into the Ballydoyle Derby number one.

The domination of the Derby trials is just part of an explosive start that Aidan O’Brien has made to the 2017 season.  He has already bagged the first two Classics, the 2000 Guineas and the 1000 Guineas and, as a bonus, he had the runner-up in the 1000 Guineas as well, as Rhododendron chased home Winter.  He has Minding back and he has Seventh Heaven back, and today at Naas, Caravaggio embarks on the road that will hopefully take last year’s Coventry Stakes winner back to Royal Ascot this year for the Commonwealth Cup. 

Such is O’Brien’s strength in-depth that there has to be a chance that this year he will equal or beat legendary American trainer Bobby Frankel’s world record of 25 Group/Grade 1 wins in a calendar year.  He went close last year, he ended 2016 with 23 victories at the highest level, but Team Ballydoyle could be even stronger this year.

As things stand, O’Brien has the ante post favourite for the Irish 2000 Guineas, the Irish 1000 Guineas, the Oaks, the Coronation Cup, the Derby, the King’s Stand Stakes, the St James’s Palace Stakes, the Prince of Wales’s Stakes, the Ascot Gold Cup, the Commonwealth Cup and the Coronation Stakes.  And he has multiple options in most of those races.  That’s 11 Group 1 races for which he has the ante post favourite, and that is just in the next five weeks, until the end of Royal Ascot. 

This time last year, O’Brien had three wins at the highest level on the board for the calendar year: Minding’s 1000 Guineas, The Gurkha’s French 2000 Guineas and Ivanovich Gorbatov’s Triumph Hurdle.  This time this year, as we grow into the season, he has two: the 2000 Guineas and the 1000 Guineas. 

Just 23 more to go.

© The Sunday Times, 21st May 2017