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Triple vision

It was interesting to listen to Aidan O’Brien on Monday as he spoke quietly about Saxon Warrior.  The trainer talked about the horse’s pace, his talent, his physique, his temperament.  He said that, even before they allowed the Deep Impact colt take his chance in the 2000 Guineas, quietly and without fanfare, the Triple Crown was in the back of their minds. 

Indeed, the very existence of the historic concept of the Triple Crown (the 2000 Guineas, the Derby and the St Leger) influenced Team Ballydoyle’s decision to run Saxon Warrior in the Guineas.  There were myriad reasons for not starting off the season by running in a Classic over a mile, for allowing the three-year-old colt make his 2018 debut in a Derby trial over 10 or 12 furlongs instead. 

On his final run as a juvenile, Saxon Warrior won the Group 1 Racing Post Trophy, a race that is historically more a pointer to the Derby than to the Guineas.  His sire Deep Impact won the Japanese Derby and the Japan Cup over a mile and a half, and he won the Japanese St Leger over a mile and seven furlongs and the Tenno Sho Spring over two miles. 

Saxon Warrior’s dam Maybe is by Galileo out of a three-parts sister to Oaks winner Dancing Rain.  He is bred to be a middle-distance horse.

A Derby trial would have been the obvious starting point for Saxon Warrior this season as a stepping-stone to Epsom: the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial or the Chester Vase or the Dante.  Aidan O’Brien already had the Guineas favourite anyway in Gustav Klimt.  But ‘obvious’ is not renowned for stretching the boundaries of what’s possible. 

There was a risk attached to running Saxon Warrior in the Guineas for sure, of running him in the white-hot heat of a Group 1 race, a Classic, over a distance that would probably prove to be shorter than his optimum.  He wasn’t even sent off as favourite for the Guineas. 

In the end, however, there was reward.  Saxon Warrior was very good in the Guineas.  Under a cool ride from his young jockey Donnacha O’Brien, he showed a fine turn of foot between the three-furlong marker and the two-furlong marker, and he stayed on strongly all the way to the line. 

Triple Crown talk was not easily suppressed in the Guineas aftermath.  When a horse with Saxon Warrior’s physique and middle-distance pedigree wins the Guineas, the Derby is the obvious play in the What’s Next game.  And given the history that goes with the Triple Crown, if you are inclined to think four and a half months thence, you can think St Leger.

The Triple Crown presents a formidable task.  It is not a coincidence that the great Nijinsky is the last horse to complete it.  Nijinsky, who was trained by Aidan O’Brien’s predecessor at Ballydoyle, the legendary Dr Vincent O’Brien, was 48 years ago.  Before Nijinsky, it was Bahram in 1935.  Before Bahram, you have to go back to Gainsborough in 1918.  There have only been two Triple Crown winners in the last 100 years. 

It should not be surprising that Triple Crown winners are rare.  The cocktail of attributes that a thoroughbred requires in order to win all three legs is deep and wide.  He has to be precocious enough to get to the Guineas in early May, and he has to have the speed and the pace to be able to win that Classic over Newmarket’s straight mile.

He has to have the temperament to handle the Epsom razzamatazz on Derby day and the encroaching crowd.  He has to have the balance to handle Epsom’s cambers, the turns and twists of the Epsom Downs, to be able to wheel around Tattenham Corner.  He has to have the pace to adopt and hold a position, and he has to have the stamina that will see him home through the final furlong and a half.

He has to have a trainer in his corner who will be able to get him to Doncaster at concert pitch in September, four and a half months after he had been primed for the Guineas, and he has to have the stamina that will see him home up Doncaster’s unforgiving straight, at the end of one mile and six and a half furlongs.

The Guineas is a pace test, the Leger is an endurance test.  It would be like asking a human athlete to win the 400-metre gold and the 5,000-metre gold.  It would be a rare athlete who could win both.

The St Leger has fallen a little out of fashion in recent years.  It is not seen as a commercial race, a stallion-making race.  It is why, after Nashwan won the Guineas and the Derby in 1989, he by-passed the Leger in order to run in an Arc de Triomphe trial.  It is why, when Sea The Stars won the Guineas and the Derby in 2009, the St Leger was never on his radar. 

Camelot came mighty close in 2012.  Trained, like Saxon Warrior, by Aidan O’Brien, the Montjeu colt won the Guineas and the Derby, and he finished second in the St Leger to Encke, a horse who was disqualified from racing for six months the following spring as one of the Mahmood Al Zarooni horses who tested positive for steroids.

Perhaps there is a sense of unfinished business there for Team Ballydoyle.  Perhaps not.  Either way, it is great for racing that the Triple Crown is on Saxon Warrior’s radar.  It is great that the decision-makers at Coolmore and Ballydoyle see it as important, the tradition of it all, the making of history, a legacy, a bridge to Nijinsky.  It is the same engine that drove the remarkable Yeats’ four victories in the Ascot Gold Cup, a race that is steeped in history, not in commercialism.

But there is a commercial element to it too.  A St Leger winner may not automatically be at the top of a commercial breeder’s wish list, but a St Leger winner who has also won the Guineas and the Derby, who has displayed that level of talent and that depth of versatility, the first Triple Crown winner since Nijinsky, could be a super-sire.

It is not a coincidence that the statue of Nijinsky is the first thing you see when you drive in through the gates at Ballydoyle, and that it is the last thing you see before you leave. 

© The Sunday Times, 20th May 2018