Donn's Articles » Aidan O’Brien and the Arc

Aidan O’Brien and the Arc

It was on this day last year that Aidan O’Brien achieved one of the most remarkable feats of his career to date when he saddled the first three home in the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Remarkable feats are not new to Aidan O’Brien.  He majors in the remarkable.  And he was not breaking new ground by having the one-two-three in a big race, in a Group 1 contest.  We had been there before.  But to have the one-two-three in the Arc de Triomphe, that took one-two-threes to a whole new level.

The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe is the all-aged middle-distance championship race of Europe.  It is the race into which the entire season funnels.  Historically, it has been won by some of the great racehorses: Sea-Bird, Vaguely Noble, Mill Reef, Alleged, Dancing Brave, Montjeu, Sea The Stars.  The richest turf race run anywhere in the world, it is a career-defining race.

Before last year, no trainer had ever had the one-two-three in the Arc.  Andre Fabre has trained seven Arc winners, Charles Semblat, Francois Mathet and Alec Head have all trained four but, in its near-100-year history, no trainer ever had been responsible for the first three home.

O’Brien did it with just three horses too, Found, Highland Reel, Order Of St George, just three representatives in a field of 16, rat-tat-tat, with a King George winner and an Epsom Derby winner and a French Derby winner and Japanese Derby winner in their wake. 

The Ballydoyle team for today’s Arc was finalised on Thursday.  Highland Reel was not on the team, the prospect of soft ground may have been the determining factor in his omission, but five runners is a signal of intent.

Winter is a fascinating inclusion.  It was only in dispatches during the week that she emerged as an Arc possible, a little from left-field.  The Galileo filly is a dual Classic winner, but she is a dual Classic winner over a mile, she was an impressive winner of the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket in early May and she followed up by easily landing the Irish 1000 Guineas at The Curragh.  Then she won the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot, also over a mile.

We know that she has pace for a mile, but we don’t know yet that she has the stamina for a mile and a half.

She did win the Nassau Stakes at Goodwood over a mile and a quarter.  It appeared that she stayed that trip well, and the fact that she is by Galileo gives her a chance of getting any trip, despite the fact that her dam was essentially a sprinter.

Two other positives.  Firstly, there is the fact that Team Ballydoyle have decided to allow Winter run in the Arc when she could have run in the Prix de l’Opera today instead.  The Opera is a Group 1 race run over 10 furlongs restricted to fillies and mares.  In theory, it was the obvious race for Winter today.  She would have been clear favourite for the race had she run in it.

Perhaps connections feel that they can win the Opera anyway with Hydrangea or Rhododendron, but the fact that they are running Winter in the Arc, when they already have four horses in the race, suggests that they think that she will stay all right. 

Secondly, Ryan Moore has chosen to ride Winter in front of her four stable companions.  He obviously feels that the uncertainty about her stamina is counteracted by the certainty about her pace and her class, and that that gives her the best chance of the quintet.  Allied to that vote of confidence is the fact that Winter will have Moore in her corner.

It may have been a difficult decision for the rider, mind you.  It may have been a marginal call.  Order Of St George ran a massive race to finish third in last year’s Arc.  In so doing, the Ascot Gold Cup winner and dual Irish St Leger winner proved that he could operate at the track and over a mile and a half at the highest level.  

He could do even better this year.  The ground was good last year, it will be softer today, and that will bring his stamina into play.  As well as that, he went into last year’s race on the back of a low, on the back of a shock defeat in the 2016 Irish St Leger.  He goes into today’s race on a high, on the back of a scintillating victory in the Irish Leger three weeks ago, one of the best runs of his life.  He is as good as ever and he has a real chance.

Capri also has a real chance.  Another Galileo colt, he had to dig deep to land the St Leger at Doncaster two weeks ago, and common consensus is that this year’s St Leger was one of the best renewals of the race run in recent times.

The grey colt stayed the one-mile-six-furlong trip well that day, but his victory in the Irish Derby in July proved that he has the pace and the class for a mile and a half.  He is taking a step up today, he is taking on his elders for the first time, and he has not had a long break after his exertions at Doncaster but, if he has recovered sufficiently, he could out-run big odds.

There is also a world record sub-plot to today.  Clemmie’s win in the Cheveley Park Stakes and US Navy Flag’s win in the Middle Park Stakes at Newmarket yesterday brought Aidan O’Brien’s Group/Grade 1 tally thus far in 2017 to 20.  Bobby Frankel’s world record of 25 Group/Grade 1 winners in a calendar year is in sight. 

Today is a big day in that context too.  As well as his five representatives in the Arc itself, Aidan O’Brien has big chances in four of the other Group 1 races at Chantilly: Magical in the Prix Marcel Boussac, Happily in the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere, Hydrangea and Rhododendron in the Prix de l’Opera, Alphabet in the Prix de l’Abbaye.

We could be on the cusp of another remarkable feat.

© The Sunday Times, 1st October 2017